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Spirit – Time to rest…

Sigh.

This is a post I’ve been dreading writing for almost six years. I knew I’d have to write it one day, it was an absolute certainty, and I’ve never kidded myself otherwise. But still, now the time has come… it’s hard. It really is. I’m sure it is going to turn into a long, personal, emotional ramble, so if that’s not what you came here for then maybe you should skip this post. Just warning you.

Still here? Ok.

You’re here at this blog because you have an interest in space exploration and astronomy, that’s pretty much a given. So unless you’ve been caving in Mongolia this week, or trekking across Antarctica, or living in a submarine, you’ll have heard the news that all the brave and stubborn attempts to free Spirit – the first of the two Mars Exploration Rovers to land on Mars – from the sandtrap it drove into, all those months ago, have been halted, and the rover team have been ordered to stop trying to drive Spirit out, and instead position her in a way that will help give her a fighting chance of surviving the imminent, brutally cruel martian winter.

But despite what you might have read in some screaming headlines, online or in print, no-one has “abandoned” Spirit, ok?! No-one has “given up” on her, no-one is “walking away” from her. She isn’t “dead”, “lost” or “doomed”. She’s stuck. She’s well and truly stuck, absolutely lodged into that bloody sneaky, camouflaged, dust-filled fracking crater, like a fat cat wedged into a mouse hole, but she’s certainly not dead. Her cameras are working fine. Her spectrometer can still be used. Her robot arm is still moving, the instruments on the end of it good to go. It’s just her wheels that have let her down: a second wheel is now not working, leaving her with just four to use, and the material she is floundering in is just so fine, so evil, so wicked that moving a mere few centimetres was a cause for whoops of celebration, she really is stuck that badly.

But dead? No way.

However, there’s no escaping the brutal truth that Spirit is going nowhere, not for many months at least, and possibly ever again. This is, of course, a terrible, crushing blow to all the men and women at JPL – and around the world – who have been working so hard to try to “Free Spirit”. I was, as some of you will know, lucky enough to meet some of them when I was invited to JPL a year or so ago, and my heart truly goes out to them, because I know they have sweated blood, mentally, in their attempts to free the trapped rover. Only time, and Mars, have beaten them. Spirit simply can’t survive the forthcoming harsh martian winter how she is now, and even if she was to drive out of the crater right now, today, with two broken wheels and so little power left she wouldn’t be able to get very far anyway, certainly not to safety. So there seems to be no choice – Spirit has to find a way to squeeze some more energy from the Sun, or she’ll freeze to death, and the only way she can do that is if her solar panels are tilted towards the Sun. That means, cruelly, burrowing even deeper into her sandtrap so those panels are positioned more favourably. It’s just not fair. It’s not fair at all.

So, the bitter pill has to be swallowed – Spirit is staying where she is, at least for the winter, and after a period of hibernation (how I HATE even typing that word!!!), when she’ll power down to help her survive the winter, she will be used as a ‘static science platform’ instead of a rover. She’ll become, in effect, a new martian lander – an honourary Viking 3, if you like.

The good news, the silver lining to this sucky, dark cloud, is that should that happen (and there’s absolutely no guarantee at this point that Spirit will survive the winter, she really is in that much trouble) there’ll be a lot more science she can do when she wakes up. She can study the atmosphere. She can make very accurate measurements of the rocks and minerals around her. She can do seismology. She can take very high resolution images, building up an incredibly detailed portrait of her surroundings, and much more.

…but that’s not the point, and it won’t be any comfort for my friends Scott, and Sharon, or the other people at JPL who drive and care for the rovers. I know that they will be feeling that this is just horribly, horribly, gut-wrenchingly, heartbreakingly wrong. I feel that way myself, and many spaceflight enthusiasts around the world will do, too. The thing is, Spirit was built to rove, and she’s roved for six years. For her to have to stop now – trapped like a baby mammoth that’s blundered into a tar pit – is just awful.

I keep telling myself that actually, we should count our blessings. Spirit isn’t dead, not by a long way. Yes, she’s lame, and she’s tired, and her energy levels are dangeously low, but she’s still with us, she’s still standing proud on Mars, taking in the view, looking around her, staring and glaring at the mounds of Goddard and Von Braun ( that are so, so close, damnit! 😦  ), and it could have been a lot, lot worse. I always imagined that one morning I’d get up for work at 6am as usual, go online, log on to unmannedspaceflight.com, and read, aghast, that one of the rovers had simply gone dead, had not “phoned home” as usual, and no-one knew why. I always imagined the first rover would die completely without warning, because some obscure systems failure had shut her down and took her from us silently and with no chance of rescue. That would almost be kinder than this. Spirit is just stuck, trapped like a fly in amber, and there’s nothing I or anyone else can do about it, not with a circuit-freezing, computer-killing martian winter growling away just over the horizon.

It’s taken me a couple of days to get down to writing about my feelings about this latest chapter in Spirit’s epic story. As regular readers will know, I’ve “lived” the MER mission from start to finish – actually, from before it started; I followed the rovers from construction to launch, I watched them taking shape.

Almost every day since the day they landed (except for days when I was on holiday, and not within reach of a computer to get online with!) I’ve looked in on them, checked how they were doing, looked at the latest images, etc. With my fellow members of the unmannedspaceflight.com forum I’ve virtually walked beside Spirit, and Opportunity, for every sol of their adventure. I’ve rolled down into craters with them, trundled up hills with them, watched sunrises and sunsets with them, and so much more. They’ve been a huge part of my life for the best part of a decade now, and I feel no shame at all when I say that I am strongly attached to them emotionally. I know they’re just machines physically, but it’s what they represent and what they have achieved that moves me. To me they really are like people, like the first astronauts on Mars, and I care for them and worry about them just as much as I would do if they were made of flesh and blood. And if that strikes you as silly, or over sentimental, then I’m not even going to try to justify or explain it, it’s just the way I feel, and there are many, many more people like me. The rovers are loved, genuinely loved, and it’s sickening to think that one of them might never rove again. 

I decided I finally had to write about this last night, when I caught a glimpse of Mars through a gap in the clouds. It looked like a bright, Spangle-orange star, blazing to the lower left of the Moon – but it looked… different. It felt strange looking at it and knowing that now only 1 rover is left roving. It’s just so sad, like that scene near the end of SILENT RUNNING where one of the two surviving droids is knocked down and crippled by Lowell in his buggy, and the other has to walk away from it to carry on on its own. I just can’t shake that scene from my mind. 😦

Amazingly – but perhaps inevitably, given human nature – some people are criticising the rover team for taking so long with their tests and simulations in the ‘sandbox’ at JPL. They say that they were too cautious, too slow, not daring enough in their 6 months of trying to find a way to “Free Spirit”. Me? I think that if they thought they needed 6 months, then they needed 6 months. I’m sure they’d have loved to have had a shiny crystal ball to help them foretell the future. I’m sure they’d like to have a pair of Meade 20/20 Vision Hindsight Binoculars to gaze into and show them how – if -they could have done things differently. But in the real world, such luxuries are not available. Those people are experts, professionals; not only do they do this for a living, as their job, but they do it with NASA and the rest of the world – including countless backseat drivers, like us – watching their every move and breathing down their necks, just waiting for them to trip up whilst impatiently nagging “Are we there yet?” from behind. I don’t envy them, but I admire, respect and will support them at every opportunity, especially now when they must all be feeling really disappointed at best and really, really hacked off and ready to punch their way through the nearest wall at worst. If any of them are reading this (and actually, I know a couple will, eventually) then heads up guys, you’re all heroes and heroines in my book.

I can’t imagine how wretched they feel, to be honest. They tried everything – everything – they could think of, and over the last week or so it seemed like some progress, however small, was being made, but it was just too little too late, and so the decision was been taken ‘higher up’ to essentially “dig in” Spirit for the winter, turning its solar panels towards the Sun as effeciently as possible, and abandon attempts to haul her out of the camouflaged, dust-filled crater she has been trapped in for so long.

So, what actually happens next? Well, as I understand it, after Spirit has been driven (see? She’s still driving! She’s just not driving OUT!) into a position where her solar panels are getting more sunlight, she will keep doing limited – very limited – science until March, possibly April, and then she will just stop doing science and hunker down for the winter and try to survive, like one of those penguins you see on nature documentaries, tucking their head under their wing to hide from the cold and try to stay alive.

And then? Well, I asked Emily Lakdawalla, a science journalist and fellow rover hugger, who writes the blog for the Planetary Society, about that, and she explained that Spirit will not actually be “switched off” by a person – she’ll probably do it herself. At some point, her decreasing power levels will eventually trip a low power fault, then she will enter a hibernation mode all by herself. That means a a couple of her systems will still be electrically awake — mainly, her clock and whatever electronics are necessary to make her solar panels and batteries work — but everything else will get shut down automatically.  Including her radio link with Earth. “Once a day, her clock will alarm her awake just enough to check the state of her batteries, and if they’re not charged enough, she’ll hit the snooze button,” Emily explained to me.

Oh, that would be the worst thing, wouldn’t it? If that happens, if she goes into her ‘hibernation mode’, and the radio link with her is severed, we won’t have any warning when she goes to sleep: one day she’ll just not be there when we look for and listen for her. All we’ll be able to do then is wait… and wait… and wait, wait for her to phone home again. Hopefully she’d send us a message to let us know she made it through the winter and is ready to get back to work – but we might never hear from her again. If something breaks while she’s in this hibernation mode, that could be it. As Emily said, “If she totally shuts down, she wouldn’t be rouseable again.” All we’ll be able to do is sit here, wondering if she died during one cold, lonely night, and we wouldn’t even know which one.
But I’m sure it won’t come to that. Everything Mars has thrown at Spirit, she’s survived. This, don’t forget, is the rover that CLIMBED A HILL ON MARS! This is the rover that DRAGGED A BROKEN WHEEL BEHIND HER FOR MONTHS, AND USED IT TO MAKE DISCOVERIES WITH! This is the rover that PHOTOGRAPHED EARTH IN MARS’ SKY! As rover driver Scott Maxwell as said, Spirit has had to fight for every single thing she’s ever had – every image, every metre of ground travelled, every measurement taken. Only a fool would bet against her not just surviving the martian winter, but actually scrabbling and scrambling free of this sandtrap and carrying on down the side of Homeplate towards Goddard and Von Braun. I honestly would not put anything past her, or past the amazing men and women who drive her.
One thing is certain – Spirit WILL move from this spot again, one day. Maybe not under her own power, maybe not after being commanded to by Scott, or Sharon, or one of her other drivers, but she will move. One day, maybe in a century’s time, explorers, settlers or colonists will reach the Columbia Hills, following Spirit’s route. They’ll walk slowly up to Spirit, reverently, like pilgrims approaching an altar or a holy relic. Then they’ll painstakingly dust her off and, eventually, when they’re sure she’s in good enough shape, they’ll lift her out of the sand and bring her back to the main Mars base, where she’ll be put on display in the Smithsonian Museum of Mars, alongside Opportunity, Phoenix, Mars Science Laboratory and the wreckage of Beagle 2. Hundreds then, eventually, thousands of visitors – native-born martians, tourists from Earth and Luna, scientists en-route to the asteroid belt and moons of Jupiter – will visit her, peering through the glass to marvel at how small she is, how fragile she looks, and shake their heads in amazement at how much she and Oppy accomplished during their Lewis and Clark trek across Mars…
And you know what I truly believe? I believe that one day she’ll return to Earth. I think that in a couple of centuries’ time she will be brought back home, to Terra, and put on display for a while in the original Smithsonian, for the great, great, great, great grandchildren of today’s armchair explorers to see.
And before she returns to Mars, for just a few days, maybe even just for one glorious, three-hankies day, she’ll truly return home – to be put on display at JPL in California, in the Von Karman Auditorium (or whatever has replaced it by then) where the families of the men and women who designed, built and drove her will come to see her and pay their respects, before she leaves Earth for the second and final time.
So, you see, this isn’t the end. This is just one more stop in Spirit’s long, long journey. It’s a sad time, true, and if I could click my fingers and teleport myself to Mars right now and physically haul Spirit out of that damned sand and line her up with the Sun I would, but I can’t. If I could go to Mars and sit down beside Spirit, and drape an arm over her to keep her company and keep her warm, I would. But I can’t. So. The driving has stopped – for now, and Spirit’s mission will now be to survive the winter and then explore from one set position, which she will do with great success. It will be wonderful if she roves again, but if she doesn’t then she’ll still be there, on Mars, teaching us about the Red Planet and uncovering yet more of her secrets.
And every night from now until the rover finally stops working, if Mars is visible in the sky above me, I’ll look up at it and wish Spirit well.
Time to rest, Spirit. You’ve earned it.
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6 Responses

  1. Holy crap Stu. I cried nearly all the way through that.
    Yes folks, I’m a card carrying member of the ‘Rover Hugger Society’ and proud of it.
    Geez, “sit down beside Spirit, and drape an arm over her to keep her company and keep her warm”, I’ll be there with you handing you a cup of coffee and we’ll watch Earth sink slowly in the west over Gusev’s far horizon.

    • I’s like to say I choked up Stu, I am a big softie in many respects and I’ve been along for the journey as long you. I certainly would have gotten misty-eyed if this was a story about a dog. I guess since I was an ME in another life and I’ve been a tinkerer since I was able to walk, I look at devices and machines in a different way.

      I agree though that these rovers and their stories will be respected and cherished many years from now. I get the feeling however that perhaps they’ll be protected in-place where they now sit. I’ve always thought that the Apollo landing sites after being off-limits for some time, might eventually be covered with some kind of transparent dome, with possibly transparent tunnels through them where people might walk real close and slightly above where they can have a good look at these historic places and the primitive equipment still lying in the dust.

      With respect to Mars and the more dynamic environment who knows what those sites will look like in 100 years when a similar protection project might be undertaken, but I can envision that scenario for those places too. I can also picture the news story 90 years from now featuring someone who is right now an 18 year old employee or college intern of some kind at JPL, being flown to the new tourist site where the dome over Columbia hills has been completed, laced with tunnels and walkways. I can imagine that everyone smiles as this 108 year old person cuts the ribbon to the facility and visitor center and is then taken to stand in a transparent tunnel,10 feet above the scratched and pitted remains of Spirit as she sits in her final resting place for all to see.

  2. Goshdarnit….no fair making me cry like that…

    This past year, I wrote a novel set on Mars, about a colonist who goes out to bring the Phoenix home. By that point in my imaginary history, Spirit and Oppy had already been retrieved, and given places of honor in separate colonies (one even named Spirit City!) My main character used to spend a lot of hours sitting next to Spirit, just talking about how she wanted to retrieve the Phoenix, and looking up at the sky. While I was writing those scenes, I wanted so badly to be there, to be able just to sit next to Spirit, looking up at that sky…

    One day. Someone WILL go get her. As long as she and the other rover and landers are there, we have a home away from earth, just waiting.

    (oh, and even XKCD did a tribute–another tearjerker! http://xkcd.com/695/ )

  3. Perhaps there is something to be found right where Spirit is and unless it stays there – we might never find out what it is?

    Perhaps too, like those miraculously found after unimaginable periods of time in Haiti’s rubble – Spirit too will make it through.

    I have not followed this at all but was moved by your passionate dedication and am envious now that I feel I have missed all those amazing images and discoveries new.

    Namaste,
    Tina Louise

  4. Oh, Stu — you’ve really done it this time… this was a three-hanky read for me! You’ve said what all us rover-huggers wished we could say as eloquently as you. You really are the Poet Laureate of Mars!

    Nancy

  5. Although I am not prepared to consider even for one moment that Spirit is an ex Rover; it has NOT ceased to be NOR has it joined the choir invisibule. However the out pourings of anthropomorphic eulogising does bode well for real-Time immersive Lunar TeleOps. Spirit II on the Moon?

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