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A VERY Big day for Spirit…

Later today there will be a NASA press conference, which everyone can follow live online, to provide an update on the heroic attempts to free the Mars Exploration Rover ‘Spirit’ from the sand trap it’s been stuck in for the past 2 million years (not really, it just feels like it! 😦 ) And it’s very possible that the news will not be good.

While recent attempts to drive the rover out of its camouflaged crater ‘tar pit’ have been ‘encouraging’ – the rover made several cm of progress (which might not sound a lot, but in Mars rover terms that’s a real ‘whoop! whoop!’ distance and achievement) – the rover faces a much greater enemy now: time. It will soon be winter at Spirit’s location, and, at their current angle, its solar panels are not going to be able to drink in enough energy-generating sunlight to keep it warm enough to allow it to survive the incredibly harsh conditions looming on the horizon. So, for a  while now, there has been a lot of discussion about the need to change the angle of those panels if the rover can’t be freed – and that time might have finally come.

The line-up of the panel featuring in today’s press conference ( Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters in Washington; John Callas, project manager, Mars Exploration Rovers, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; Ashley Stroupe, rover driver, Mars Exploration Rovers, JPL and Steve Squyres, rovers principle investigator, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.)  shows that it’s not going to be just a simple ‘update’, but will be the announcement of something; you just wouldn’t get all those important people in one place to tell people “We’re still trying”. So, what will the announcement be?

Well, it’s pretty safe to assume it won’t be “We’re out!” because we’d all have seen that for ourselves on the pictures Spirit has been sending back. Those images show the rover has moved a little, which is fantastic news and a stunning success in its own right for the dedicated rover team, but it is still badly pretty mired in its trap. What’s more likely, I think,  is that they will tell the world something along the lines of “Look, we’ve been trying really hard, and lately we’ve been getting somewhere, but we haven’t got the time to keep trying, we have to get those panels facing the Sun to survive the winter, so we’re going to hunker down where we are now, try our best to get through the winter, and try to get out again in the Spring.” That’s the best case scenario for today, I reckon – which many doom-mongers and oh-woe-is-me!’ers will take as an admission of defeat, but it would be far from it ; it would just be the sensible and realistic thing to do.

The worst case scenario would be for the panel to announce that all their attempts to free Spirit have failed, and they’re just not going to try anymore: Spirit’s roving days would be officially declared ‘over’ and she would become essentially a martian ‘lander’, a static platform for studying this area of Mars. Which again would NOT be a defeat, not really, and it certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world, or the mission. Sure, some people will gnash their teeth and moan and groan, and mourn Spirit’s passing, but that would be both premature and ridiculous: the way to think about it would be to start thinking of Spirit as a new lander that has just arrived on Mars, and is going to study its surroundings, and squeeze every last drop of science out of them, until it ends its mission. Spirit will basically become an honourary “Viking 3”! 🙂

And there’s a LOT of science Spirit can do if she is destined to end her days where she is now. She can study Mars’ atmosphere, the dust on the ground around her, the mineral composition of the rocks and the airflow over the ground and over herself. She will be able to take lots and LOTS of images, building up an incredibly high resolution portrait of the landscape around her, possibly the most detailed image ever taken on Mars. She’ll be able to monitor clouds moving across the sky, dust devils whirling and whorling across the plains, and follow – and photograph – Earth shining in the sky, too. So, no, it won’t be the end of the world, it will just be a change of gear.

So, I guess we’ll know more later today! Of course, with my usual BRILLIANT timing I’ll be at work, so I’ll probably be the last person in the world to hear the news, but maybe I’ll be able to find a way to catch up in real time, we’ll see… 😉

Meanwhile, Spirit’s sister rover, ‘Opportunity’, is having a heck of a time on the other side of Mars, scootling along very happily towards a young (that’s young in martian terms, it’s still over a thousand years old!) crater called ‘Concepcion’. This fresh crater looks absolutely fascinating, and is surrounded by numerous blocks of dark, angular rock, all of which will probably be studied and photographed in great detail before Oppy moves on and continues her epic trek to Endeavour Crater, way, waaaay over there to the east. We’ve already seen lots of images of Concepcion on the horizon (see my “Road To Endeavour” blog) but here’s a picture I’ve made showing a VERY fanciful, colourised version of what Oppy might see as she drives towards it…

We might end today with one roving rover and one resting rover, but if we do that’s ok. After exploring craters, climbing hills and fighting for every single cm of ground she’s covered, Spirit has more than earned her rest – and Oppy will be more than happy to keep exploring on her behalf! 🙂

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One Response

  1. […] Go see more of Stuart’s Mars Art. […]

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