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Spirit shuts her eyes…

When I got up this morning, ready to head off to work for my early shift, I followed my usual routine: “pay a visit”… wash… get dressed… turn PC on… put kettle on… make Stella’s packed lunch while PC is chugging through its start-up… fire-up AOL… make cup of tea… sit down at computer desk… check overnight space news –

Oh no


PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit skipped a planned communication session on March 30 and, as anticipated from recent power-supply projections, has probably entered a low-power hibernation mode.

In this mode, the rover’s clock keeps running, but communications and other activities are suspended in order to put all available energy into heating and battery recharging. When the battery charge is adequate, the rover attempts to wake up and communicate on a schedule it knows.

“We may not hear from Spirit again for weeks or months, but we will be listening at every opportunity, and our expectation is that Spirit will resume communications when the batteries are sufficiently charged,” said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is project manager for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity.

Spirit’s power supply is low because daily sunshine for dusty solar panels is declining with the approach of the winter solstice, in mid-May, in Mars’ southern hemisphere. In the three previous Martian winters that Spirit has survived since landing in January 2004, the rover was tilted northward to put its solar panels at a favorable angle toward the sun. That preparation was not possible this winter because of impaired mobility. Spirit’s wheels are dug into soft sand, and the rover lost the use of a second wheel four months ago. It had previously lost use of one of its six wheels four years ago.

Spirit’s original mission was planned to last for three months. The rover has worked extended missions since April 2004. Opportunity is currently on a long-term trek toward a large crater named Endeavour.

Spirit had been communicating on a once-per-week schedule in recent weeks. During the designated time for the rover to communicate with NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter passing overhead on March 30, Odyssey heard nothing from the rover.

“We are checking other less-likely possibilities for the missed communication, but this probably means that Spirit tripped a low-power fault sometime between the last downlink on March 22 and yesterday,” Callas said. “The recent downlinks had indicated that the battery state of charge was decreasing, getting close to the level that would put Spirit into this hibernation.”

In coming weeks, Spirit’s core electronics will become colder than any temperature they have ever experienced on Mars. Thermal projections indicate the temperature probably will not drop lower than the electronics were designed and tested to tolerate, but the age of the rover adds to the uncertainty of survival.

“The temperature limit was for a new rover. We now have an older rover with thousands of thermal cycles on Mars, so the colder temperatures will be a further stress,” Callas said.

Translation: Spirit fought hard, and bravely, but it looks like she just hasn’t got enough strenth to stay awake any longer, and she’s gone into hibernation. How long for? We don’t know, but it might be months. We might not hear from Spirit again until July or even August… if we hear from her again.


Of course, this has been on the cards for a while now. Spirit has really been up against it, out there on Mars. She struggled to get free from her sand trap, and started making some really good progress, but she just ran out of time and had to bed down for the harsh winter ahead. Since then she’s been getting colder and colder, weaker and weaker, and everyone who follows the rover mission – and there are many, many thousands of us, all around the world – have all been waking up each day and thinking “Is this the day we lose contact with Spirit?”

Well, today was that day, and as I sit here now, typing these words, Spirit, our poor, brave rover, is sleeping on Mars, frozen almost to the core, and getting colder. Her pancam, navcam and hazcam eyes – which have shown us so many spectacular and magical views over the past 6 years – probably won’t take any more images now for several months, and, I suppose we have to accept, might actually have taken their final images. We’ll have to wait and see. Personally, I have high hopes that she will be revived when things get better for her; not just because I’m a raging optimist when it comes to anything MER-related, and not just because, as one of the rover drivers said, “never bet against Spirit, it’s a good way to lose your money”, but because I have absolute faith in the teams of men and women who operate Spirit, and have kept her alive this long – much, much longer than we imagined possible. So I have faith that Spirit will wake, and maybe even rove, again.

Even so, it was with a heavy heart that  I went over to Twitter and saw it confirmed there, so I had to accept it was true. Eventually, after posting a few encouraging notes of my own on Facebook, Twitter and unmannedspaceflight.com, I turned the computer off and headed out to work, feeling… yes, sad, and disappointed, and actually quite upset. It was a very sad piece of news to wake up to indeed, and several people at work asked me if I was alright, so I must have been showing my disappointment.

When I got home again a short time ago I went online again, and saw the reactions to the news. Inevitably many people shared my feelings, and there were quite a few sentimental, anthropomorphic expressions of sympathy and disappointment scattered across various sites and forums, and on Twitter too, which was nice but not unexpected: the “rover hugger” community is very faithful to both Spirit and Opportunity, and to all the many engineers, technicians and scientists behind them.

But there were other reactions too, all along the lines of “Oh for pity’s sake, get real, it’s not alive, it’s just a robot!

They are missing the point, completely and entirely and utterly.

Ok, let me make this perfectly clear: none of us, not even the most devoted, most obsessive, most starry-eyed rover hugger amongst us thinks of Spirit as alive, as a living, breathing thing. We don’t think it has feelings. We don’t think it has blood, or flesh, or dreams. We don’t think it feels excitement or disappointment, pleasure or pain, triumph or failure. We know it is a machine, a tool, a mechanism, built and not born, a thing of metal, wire and glass constructed out of many small pieces of metal, wire and glass.

But it is far, FAR from “just a robot”.

In terms of her technology and engineering, Spirit is a marvel. How else would you describe something that was designed to last 90 days on Mars, to survive three months of dust-etching winds, brutal cold and dangerous ground? When she landed, many people thought that if she drove a kilometre away from the lander she’d have pulled off a miracle. 6 years later – 6 YEARS!!!! – she has covered not just one kilometre, but many. And if she hadn’t gotten stuck in that (bleep bleep bleeping bleep) sandtrap beside Homeplate she would be driving still, even with her broken wheel.

In terms of exploration, Spirit is already a legend. She has journeyed to and shown us ancient craters; climbed and then descended high hills; witnessed and sent back beautiful images of martian sunsets, and of Earth shining in a gun-metal blue alien sky. It’s no exaggeration to say that in years to come, when mankind inhabits the planets of faraway stars, and Mars is a colonised world, with towns and cities, maybe even a terraformed world with gurgling rivers and surging oceans, Spirit and Opportunity will be hailed as every bit as important and heroic as Lewis and Clark are today.

Spirit and Opportunity have changed the way we view Mars, forever. They have shown us that the world we thought was dead and dusty is a geological and meteorological wonderland, with whirling dervish dust devils and lemon- and honey-hued clouds drifting silently across its butterscotch sky.

Spirit and Opportunity have allowed us all to “go to Mars” through our computers. By logging on to the sites showing the pictures beamed back by the rovers – often just a matter of hours after they were actually taken -anyone in the world with access to the net can leave their studies, library computer rooms, schools, offices and dens and transport themselves to Mars to virtually walk alongside the rovers as they rove, each day seeing new, amazing things. I have, literally, walked every one of the inches Spirit and Opportunity have driven since they landed, not missing a thing. For the past 6 years I’ve been there, on Mars, with them.

And looking at those pictures, and following the updates, and Tweets and press releases and forum discussions I’ve gone through all Spirit’s trials and tribulations with her. I was there when she was threatened by dust storms, when her wheel froze and when she became embedded in the Troy dust trap. And I feel like I’m there with her now as she slips into her deep hibernation sleep, I really do.

But I’m not stupid. I know she’s a machine, and has no heartbeat 0r emotions, and I won’t “mourn” when she eventually loses all power and dies. But make no mistake, both she and Opportunity matter to me, they are both very important parts of my life. Not because of what they are physically, but because of what they represent.

In this dark and darkening modern world of religious fanaticism, terrorism, looming financial armageddon and the breakdown of many of our values, the MER mission stands out as a shining beacon of inspiration and success. Every image senty back by the rovers, every piece of data is proof that our puzzling, stupid, frustrating race is capable of great and good things, and not just of raining pain, destruction and death on itself. The rovers are almost a plea to the universe, a way of saying “We know we can be monsters, but look what we can also do if we set our minds to it…”

Imagine there’s a UFO in orbit, right now, cloaked from our view. Inside its occupants are eager to learn about us and our civilisation. But rather than risk landing and exposing themselves, they are scanning the Earth’s TV channels and internet, like members of the Culture from Iain M Banks’ novels. What are they seeing? They’re seeing machete massacres in blood-soaked Africa. They’re seeing mass graves in Serbia and Croatia. They’re seeing crying orphans dying of disease, starvation and war. They’re seeing soldiers bodies splattered across roadsides in Afghnanistan, turned into lasagne by roadside bombs.

…And they’re seeing beautiful, amazing, wonderful pictures sent back to Earth by two little robots on Mars, pictures that inspire, excite and touch tens of thousands if not millions of other people, all across the world.

So when people come out with comments like “It’s only a robot!” they need to see the bigger picture. They need to realise how many people find comfort in the fact that the same species capable of building weapons of mass destruction is capapble of sending a robot to another world, and using it to explore. They need to realise that, with human space exploration stalled, and astronauts exiled to low Earth orbit for the forseeable future, Spirit and Opportunity have become honourary human explorers, our “eyes” on the fourth planet from the Sun. We have sent them in our place because we are too timid and too scared to go in person. And they have shown us wonders!

The rovers aren’t alive, but their mission is, it’s a living, breathing thing in its own right. The rovers were imagined, designed, built, launched, flown, landed and then driven by people, amazing, brilliant, dedicated, passionate people, who all share a common goal – to understand the universe, and our place in it, a little better, and to pass on that knowledge to the rest of mankind, making all of us just a little better, a little less barbaric in the process.

I was privileged to meet some of the MER team – the drivers, engineers and comms people – when I visited JPL, and I can imagine how they’re feeling today, even if they’re putting on a brave face  – gutted. So when I read something like “It’s just a robot!” I want to reach into the screen, grab the throat of the psrson who wrote it and shout at them “Don’t you get it Don’t you GET it? The rovers represent the best of us! Of course some of us have feelings for them!”

You see, the metal that was used to build Spirit could have been used to build a tank or a warship. But it wasn’t. The wires that carry electricity through Spirit’s body to its cameras, motors and computers could have been used to carry that same power through the innards of an atom bomb, or a terrorist suicide bomber’s lethal rucksack. But they weren’t. Instead we chose to use those materials to increase Mankind’s knowledge. Instead we used those things to build a wheeled robot that was sent to Mars, to explore, and discover, and learn, instead of hurt, maim and destroy. Instead we built machines that have sent back tens of thousands of images of Mars to Earth, images I’ve shown to thousands of people, young and old, in Outreach talks given in drafty church halls, Lottery-funded community centres and school classrooms across my county and my country, lighting who knows how many sparks of interest in science and astronomy in the process.

So, yes, I’m a “rover hugger”, and proud of it, and yes, I love Spirit and Opportunity, and no, I make no apology for being moved to write short stories or poetry about the rovers, or for posting a goodwill message to Spirit this morning on unmannedspaceflight.com. Because I’ve spent the past 6 years walking alongside Spirit and Opportunity, with my hand resting on their backs as they trundled along. And when I read that Spirit had gone into hibernation I felt a very real sense of loss, but not because a living creature was in pain, or suffering, but because one of the best things We, our species, has ever done might finally be coming to an end.

Spirit isn’t alive, I know that. But the people behind her are, and so is the mission. And that makes her more, so much more, than “just a robot”.

So, enjoy your sleep, little one, you deserve it. Dream of hills climbed and distant peaks seen, and come back to us when you’re ready. We’ll keep peeking in through the door to make sure you’re alright.