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Spirit stops roving, and soon will sleep

Well, the day rover fans and followers have been dreading for almost 6 years has finally come – NASA has announced that driving commands to Spirit have stopped, and she’s officially parked up for the forthcoming martian winter. Spirit will not move for many months – it’s possible she will never move again, because attempts to tilt her solar panels more favourably towards the Sun didn’t go as well as hoped, and with her power levels already low, and destined to drop even lower, she really is in for a very, very hard time over the next few months. Spirit will now probably go quiet in March, into a kind of hibernation effectively, and if I understand the situation we won’t hear from here again until September. We might not hear from her ever again – she might die in her sleep during the winter, succumbing to the cold.

This is a horrible, horrible time for us rover fans. Of course, we’re all trying to convince ourselves that this isn’t the end, it’s just a pause in her epic Lewis and Clark trek across the floor of Gusev Crater, and comforting ourselves and each other by rolling out cliches like “She’s lived far longer than we dared hope”, “she will still do great science even if she can’t move”, and “she’s done amazingly well” but the bitter, inescapable, bile-in-the-mouth truth is our brave, proud girl is stuck fast, like a baby mammoth that’s blundered into a tar pit, and she might not ever get out again. She might die where she stands now, in this damned dust-filled hole that evil, evil Mars, the murderer of space probes – having failed miserably to kill her with dust storms, low power levels, computer glitches, memory seizures and a broken wheel – put in her path, hiding and camouflaging it beneath a thin crust that gave out beneath her wheels when she drove innocently over it.

This is a close-up of Troy, taken yesterday (I’ve added colour, which I;m not claiming is 1000% accurate, ok?), showing the foul, wickedly fine dust Spirit has become trapped in…

God, I HATE that stuff!!! If I could click my fingers and transport myself to Mars right now I’d drop down to my knees and shovel the ***** stuff out from under her with my gloved hands, like a dog digging a hole for a bone, and then physically push or pull Spirit free, heaving her out of Troy and putting her back safely on the path that leads south to Von Braun and Goddard. But after clicking my fingers for the past half hour clearly that’s not going to happen. There’s nothing I can do. Damnit.

Above is a picture of Spirit, taken a few months ago by MRO’s HiRISE camera. She’s the bright shape to the left of the raised plateau of Homeplate. And there she will stay, for months, possibly forever. And it’s just not fair! Spirit is a ROVER, she’s driven miles – miles! – across Mars since landing, much farther than we ever dared imagine she would. We all knew that one day her mission would end, but I think most people imagined she’d either slowly wear out until one day she ground to a shuddering, broken-down-clown-car halt, or that she’d simply not phone home one day after suffering some catastrophic systems failure overnight, with no chance to report back to us on what had happened to her before her inner light faded like a dying Terminator’s eye. That would have been hard, true, but this… to actually have to sit here and watch her floundering in this sucking dust pit, to have to sit by helplessly and witness her trying bravely to dig herself out of Troy, wheels spinning defiantly, dust churning and spraying out behind her as she fought to haul herself out of her horrible hole… it’s just been torture, it really has.

What the rover drivers and MER team members are feeling, I dread to think.

Of course, many people reading this will be laughing and thinking “Idiot, it’s just a stoopid machine!” but I honestly don’t care any more about them; they’re never going to “get” why these wheeled machines have affected people like me so deeply over the past half decade and I’m not going to try to explain it to them anymore, I’m done with them.

But for people like me, who DO “get” the romance, the drama and adventure of Spirit’s mission, who have walked – virtually, at least – faithfully beside her since she landed, crossing stone-scattered deserts with her, climbing hills with her, sheltering from dust storms with her and watching over her while she slept, bathed in the soft light of Earth and a million diamond dust stars, this is genuinely upsetting. We care about the rover; she’s become a part of our lives. We’ve spent the best part of a decade following her journey. We’ve spent hours and hours looking at the pictures she’s sent back to us across the gulf of space, and many of us have shown them to many thousands of other people, in talks and lectures, feeling a real pride every time one appeared on the screen of the school, theatre or church hall where we were speaking, thinking “That’s my girl…!” as the audience smiled with appreciation and amazement at the image before them.

After seeing new pictures taken by her every day for the past six years, after delighting in a new view of new rocks, new dust dunes and new horizons for all those hundreds and hundreds of days, now we face the prospect of not hearing anything from Spirit for half a year. We might hear now and again that she’s still alive, we might not. All we will be able to do is sit here and wait, with fingers, toes and everything else crossed that Spirit wakes from her martian hibernation and phones home again, letting us know that she beat Mars’ latest and cruellest attempt to kill her and is ready to try to get out of her sandtrap again. I hope that’s what happens; I hope that come September Spirit shudders back to life, blinks open her electronic eyes, sticks two fingers up at Mars and laughs, contemptuously, “Ha! Is that the best you’ve got? I’m still here!”

We’ll see. The odds aren’t good, but as my rover driver friend – and how proud I am to be able to say that! – always says, “Don’t bet against Spirit…”

No! This can’t be it! You know what? I’m going to try clicking my fingers again. Maybe if I do it hard enough, and if I wish hard enough, I CAN magically transport myself to Mars. Then, even if I can’t dig Spirit out I can sit down beside here, on that frigid, dusty ground in the shadow of the Columbia Hills and just sit with her, keeping her company through the long cold days and circuit-shatteringly cold nights that stretch out ahead of her. Maybe, if I wish hard enough, I can go to Mars, drape a load of my warmest, thickest coats, fleeces and jackets over her and keep her warm enough to survive through the bleak Barsoomian winter that’s looming on the horizon –

No. It’s still not working.


So. As you read this, a plucky little rover stands quietly on the surface of Mars, trapped in a bowl of dust as fine as flour and as foul as can be. She has given her makers, her drivers and her fans everything. She fought hard and long to get out of the pit she fell into, but she just couldn’t do it. Now, as the temperature at Homeplate falls, as icy fingers of cold start to scratch over and dig into her, she’s preparing to close her eyes and, like one of those penguns at the south pole, brace herself against the winter that’s rushing and howling towards her. If she makes it through thatw inter, if she comes out of the other side, it will be the most amazing, the most incredible survival story in the history of unmanned space exploration, the robotic equivalent of Shackleton’s party surviving their terrible time on Elephant Island. If she doesn’t survive… well, her place in history is already assured.

It’s hard to leave her, but we have no choice. There’s nothing more we can do. She’s on her own now – or will be, soon – and what happens then is completely out of our hands. But I know that we won’t abandon her. We’ll check on her status every day. We’ll check our email inboxes for reports from JPL; we’ll check Exploratorium just in case, against all the odds, she sneaked a new image back home in the night, just to let us all know she’s still alive. And at least once every day we’ll think of her and mentally drape an arm over her shoulders as she shudders and shivers in her sleep, hoping to warm her, if only just a little, as she dreams of climbing hills once again, of  watching dust devils whirling and whorling across the wide open plain once again, and seeing the Sun set behind distant hills just one more time.

Soon it will be time for some poor soul at JPL to send a command to Spirit to stop taking pictures, and gathering data, and just rest. I can only imagine how that person will feel as they type in the command and hit the ENTER key; it would feel like putting down a pet to me, I’m sure. But I know that as they send that command sequence there’ll be other people around them, sharing their pain, and reassuring them that it will be alright, it will be alright, there’s nothing else they can do…

And if I know Scott, and Sharon, and the rest of the rover team like I think I do, then I know that they’ll all be thinking the same thing as those commands fly away from Earth and beam towards Mars…

“We’ll come back for you, we promise…”


“The Sandman” by Margaret Thomson Janvier

The rosy clouds float overhead,

The sun is going down;

And now the sandman’s gentle tread

Comes stealing through the town.

“White sand, white sand,” he softly cries,

And as he shakes his hand,

Straightway there lies on babies’ eyes

His gift of shining sand.

Blue eyes, gray eyes, black eyes, and brown,

As shuts the rose, they softly close, when he goes through the town.

The Beauty of Endeavour…

There have been some beautiful and iconic pictures taken since the start of the Space Age: Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon… Earthrise… This week a new image was taken and returned to Earth that will join these photographs in the file marked “Wow… look at that…” Taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station, it shows the space shuttle orbiter Endeavour – but not in any way you’ve ever, EVER seen before…

You absolutely HAVE to click on that picture to do it justice.

That picture is, in every sense of the word, beautiful, don’t you think? It’s like a painting – the composition, the light, the colours, they’re all superb. I can’t think of any other image I’ve ever seen from the shuttle era that shows so perfectly just how beautiful and elegant a spacecraft shuttle is. Wings in space… high above the Earth… silhouetted against the Monet-painted atmosphere of Mankind’s Homeworld… Nothing proposed in the now-cancelled Constellation program would, or could ever, come close to offering us the sheer beauty of that image.