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The MERs belong to Mars now…



My love of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers is well known, both online and offline. There can be few people reading this blog, or who know me through my Outreach talks and astronomical activities, who would disagree with Doug Ellison’s recent Tweet that said “Stu loves the Mars rovers like a fat kid loves cake”! Yep, hands up, guilty as charged. I’ve no problem with standing up in front of the group and saying “My name is Stuart Atkinson, and I’m a rover-hugger.” 

But it took an American friend of mine, Nick Previsich, a fellow member of UMSF, to make me realise something about the Mars rovers that hadn’t previously occurred to me. It should have, it’s so face-slappingly obvious, but for some reason it didn’t. 

Spirit and Opportunity have now effectively been claimed, or absorbed, by Mars. They are now essentially moving pieces of Mars. After 5 years they are now the first true martians. 

How come? Well, They have now spent much more time on Mars than they did on Earth before they were launched. For five long, glorious, frustrating, thrilling years they’ve wandered the surface of Barsoom looking down at rock and up at the Sun and the sky. They’ve even star-gazed, and seen Earth glinting in the twilight. They are now more Of Mars than Of Earth. 

Think about it. The MERs never really experienced – or were exposed to – Earth. They were born, and grew up, inside the sterile, floodlit cavern that is JPL’s High Bay, before being moved, protected from the elements and onlookers like Michael Jackson on a shopping trip, to their rocket rides to Mars. They never saw the Sun shining in Earth’s blue sky; never saw cotton wool clouds drifting overhead; never saw trees swaying in the breeze; never felt cool Californian rain pattering and spattering their backs. They have only ever known the pink sky of Mars above their backs and the red rocks of Mars beneath their wheels. They’ve only ever known a night sky lit by two tiny hurtling moons, not one single snail-paced satellite. 

On Earth, the MERs only drove a handful of metres. On Mars they’ve driven for kilometres…


After being built their ability to drive was tested, but the ground beneath their gleaming-clean wheels was only ever smooth and kind; on Mars they’ve trundled and rumbled and crunched around and even over an endless parade of rubble, stones and boulders, each chunk of rock casting a long, black shadow in the low light of the shrunken Sun. 

On Earth, before they were sealed in their interplanetary sarcophagi, the MERs were always assaulted by the blinding glare of floodlights and spotlights; on Mars they have been bathed in a softer, gentler light as a smaller, weaker Sun crossed the Big Country sky. 

As for their scenery, well, the MERs were born into a world of metal and glass. They never saw any forms of life apart from the white bunny suit-clad engineers and techs that built them, piece by piece.


I had a vivid dream once, which has stuck with me ever since and was brought back into sharp snap focus when I visited JPL last year, in which Spirit and Opportunity somehow managed to avoid the dozens of cameras trained on them as they stood in the JPL High Bay and sneaked past all the scientists, tourists and students milling around JPL to escape out into the open air of Pasadena. Once outside they trundled around the campus, like SHORT CIRCUIT’s “Johnny 5”, and they were startled to find Life EVERYWHERE. They were amazed to see plants covering almost every available surface and thriving in every crack in every wall and sidewalk; they marvelled at the sight of the semi-tame, stick-legged deer stalking across the JPL lawns, grazing lazily in the sunshine; they tilted their cameras down and were fascinated to see but more numerous life-forms wriggling across and through the grass flattened beneath their wheels, and when they raised their “eyes” again they were shocked and entranced at the sight of living creatures soaring and wheeling in the air high above them. Finally, before being led back inside again, they trained their microscopes on the dirt beneath them and were left shaking by the sight of the countless bugs and creatures living and dying within it… 


That was just a dream, of course; the rovers never made a break for it at JPL, and never saw that world… our world. The only landscapes they have ever known have been classically martian, with red rocks and dust everywhere. But the landscape they move through is far from desolate. There is beauty within it, everywhere – dust piled up into undulating seas of high dunes, sculpted by the wind over billions of years; everywhere are rocks carved by Time itself into bizarre forms that could almost be gargoyles that have tumbled from the roofs of ancient martian cathedrals; sunsets and sunrises are lavender-hued; dust devils waltz across the horizon. There is absolutely beauty everywhere… 

Yes, Nick was right, the rovers belong to Mars now. The MERs live on martian time, not Terran time. Every sol they’ve woken up at the first of a martian dawn, and fallen asleep again in the purple gloaming of a martian dusk. Inbetween they’ve roved, explored and simply enjoyed being On Mars, relishing its rusty hues, delighting in its desolation and celebrating every inch of cinnamon-fine iron-scented dust they’ve driven over. 

Something else that occurred to me after Nick’s message was how significant it is that we always, and only, see Spirit and Opportunity as part of the martian landscape now. We see their weary wheels on – and occasionally buried in! – the surface of Mars in their Hazcam images, and we see their solar panel-covered backs in their Nav- and Pancam pictures.


But in every one of those self-portrait pictures the rovers are sharing the field of view with shattered rocks, plains of dust dunes or the mountainous far horizon. 

But what really brings home the fact that the rovers are now martian is looking at their own “self portraits”. I’m always amazed at how, by combining many different images taken by a rover’s cameras as they point straight down at itself, it is possible for a rover to make a single “overhead view” image of itself. Comparing these images taken at different times during the mission shows just how much the rovers have been absorbed by Mars: images taken early in the mission show the rovers to be almost sparkling clean, showroom clean, with sunlight glinting and flashing off them. Look at this picture, below. Spirit looks black/blue against the ruddy surface of Mars, like a huge, mutant beetle crawling across a rocky sandpit… 


Images taken recently, however, are very different. In fact, in some of them it’s hard to spot the rovers, they’re now covered in so much dust they’re like metal chameleons that have camouflaged themselves to blend into their surroundings in the hope of fooling some predator stalking nearby… 


Looking at pictures of poor dust-laden Spirit, like the one above,  taken before her most recent fortuitous “cleaning event” it’s easy to imagine Mars whispering “You’re mine now…” as the rover’s panels slowly but surely vanished beneath a smothering blanket of orange and brown fines… 

But to my mind, the best views of the rovers – and the ones that show me just how completely they have been claimed by Mars – are the ones taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s stunningly powerful HiRISE camera. Only it has the resolution to pick out the Mars rovers on the surface of Mars, and even then, when its spy satellite eagle eye zooms in on Spirit or Opportunity the rovers looks like little more than a cluster of dark pixels against the brighter surface. 

Memorably HiRISE showed is Spirit as a dark barely-there speck on the end of a double line of hair-thin tracks criss-crossing the diamond of Homeplate… (click to enlarge)


…but even more memorably, HiRISE showed Opportunity standing close to the edge of Victoria Crater after its epic drive south from Endurance. (click to enlarge)


This portrait was far superior to the HiRISE picture of Spirit, and we all shook our heads in amazement when we could actually make out not just the rough shape of the rover but the shadow of its tall camera mast falling on the dusty ground ahead of it…! (click to enlarge)


And it’s that dust, that ever-present, no-escape-from martian dust, that has turned the rovers native. Spirit and Opportunity have “shaken the dirt off their boots” as they’ve driven across Mars, and just like any explorer or geologist here on Earth they have their own unique boot-prints, which they have left in the dirt behind them during the past five years. When looking at pictures taken by both rovers it’s easy to tell which rover took which picture if you lay them side by side, because Spirit’s tracks are decidedly tortured. When her right front wheel jammed the rover was forced to drive backwards, dragging its dead wheel behind it like a lame puppy dragging a broken leg, and this wheel doesn’t so much roll across the ground as plough a trench through it, like the anchor of a ship being dragged across the ocean floor. But as any rover fan knows, the accidental cutting of that meandering, crumbling-edged furrow into the surface of Gusev Crater in the shadow of the Columbia Hills has been a blessing, not a curse; if Spirit’s wheel hadn’t wrecked the ground beneath it we would not have uncovered those lovely, chalk-bright silica-rich mineral deposits at the base of Husband Hill, would we..? (click to enlarge)


Still not convinced the rovers should now be considered to be “martians”? Well, think of it this way. The rovers are now not just covered in dust, they contain it too, they’re carrying it inside them. True, their interiors are sealed as tightly as possible, but dust will still have got inside the wheels, inside the chassis and become lodged into every corner and every tiny nook and cranny. The rovers probably weigh pounds more than they did when they landed on Mars, simply because they’ve accumulated and been infiltrated by so much dust. So, in a way, the rovers have almost become pieces of Mars that are moving around on the surface, like mobile rocks. How strange a thought is that? 


So, next time you read about how the first people born on Mars will be “the first real martians”, think again. Because right now, as you read this, just as they have done for the past five years there are two martians living and working on Mars. It doesn’t matter that they’re machines and not people; it doesn’t matter that they were built on Earth, and not Mars; it doesn’t matter that they’re controlled by people many millions of miles closer to the Sun than they are. They’re On Mars. 

And whenever the first men and women travel to that distant red star, and hop off the ladder to plant their boots in its crushed strawberry dust, they’ll be following in the tracks of two intrepid explorers which were everything Ray Bradbury hoped the martians would be.


4 Responses

  1. it’s not like they were made with martian metal ON MARS.

    Those robots aren’t martian in any sense of the word.

    • Thanks for your comment Ben, as brusque as it was 🙂 Of course they’re not *literally* martian; it’s an abstract concept and a purely personal and emotional observation. 🙂

  2. I like that title, it makes you think about them and their future.

  3. […] post was partly inspired by a very thought-provoking entry at Cumbrian […]

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