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Seven years on Mars… on Mars… on Mars…

Around this time seven years ago today I was doing a very good impression of a zombie, having stayed up all night to watch the heartstopping landing of the rover “Spirit” on Mars.

I had followed the whole thing live, via NASA TV, on a small RealPlayer box that kept freezing and breaking-up into a shattered kaleidescope flurry of pixels as my dial-up (yes, dial-up!!!) connection struggled to keep up with the data stream. I can’t remember how many cups of coffee I guzzled, how many packets of Maltesers I munched, how many bags of spicy Nik Naks I noshed, but they saw me through the night, and I didn’t miss a thing, not one moment. I sat there, in my criminally-uncomfortable chair, gazing at my flickering PC screen, for hours… HOURS… following the tense countdown to EDL. I remember my heart was in my mouth as the control room at JPL fell silent, a sign that EDL had started… I watched everyone’s faces for flickers and traces of emotion that might be hints that something, good or bad, had happened…

I remember tears of joy and utter, utter relief filling my eyes as the engineers and scientists and techs crammed sardine-like into that control room FINALLY leapt off their seats (which looked MUCH more comfy than mine!) and punched the air in celebration as Spirit told Earth she had landed safely on Mars and was just fine, thank you very much…

… and I remember feeling so, so happy for Steve Squyres, who, in that moment, surrounded by back-slapping, high-fiveing, bear-hugging colleagues, offered up a “thank you” smile to the sky…

Even though I was dead on my feet by then, I stayed awake until the first pictures came back from Spirit. Of course I did, I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d seen those first pictures! They didn’t take long to appear, really, not long at all, it just felt like hours, and when they flashed up on the screen it was  a moment of pure martian magic…

That was Mars! There! Between the bits of the rover itself! Rocks! Dust! Dunes! More rocks! Spirit had made it! If nothing else went according to plan, if Spirit’s wheels didn’t unfurl properly, if she was stranded on top of the landing stage, she’d still be able to conduct a detailed photographic survey of her landing site –

Wow! Look at THAT!!! SO many rocks!! 🙂 🙂

I think… I’m not totally sure, I’ll be honest, it’s all a bit blurry now – that I crashed out on my sofa then, I was so tired. I wanted to wait up to see the first colour images released by the MER team but my body just wouldn’t let me; I’d been up for over 24 hours already. The night before the landing I’d been a guest on my local BBC Radio station (BBC Radio Cumbria), taking part in a panel discussion about the importance and potential of the Mars rovers. Well, that had been the plan, but, perhaps inevitably – and I’ve NEVER forgiven him for this! – the phone-in host, Richard Bacon, turned it into a discussion about the cost of space exploration, and all sensible discussion about what the rovers  might find and tell us about Mars was swept away by a tide of “It’s not worth the money!” phonecalls from people clearly ignorant of just how little money is actually spent on space, and how much benefit everyone gets from that money. So when I got home I was fuming, absolutely fuming, but as soon as I sat down in front of my computer, opened a bag of chocolate and poured my first cuppa I was fine. But sometime around dawn on that January day I simply hit The Wall and flopped onto my sofa, surrendering to sleep.

When I woke up, I found this waiting for me…

… and after that the rovers, both of them, Spirit and Opportunity, became major parts of my life.

In the days after landing there was a real sense of urgency about the mission, a feeling that Time was ticking, ticking, ticking. The rovers had been – we were told – designed to last 90 days or so on the martian surface. Three months. So imagine the frustration we all felt when Spirit didn’t drive off her landing stage for what seemed like an eternity. But finally we were off, literally, and Spirit’s Great Adventure had begun…

Seven years later, Spirit’s condition is unknown. In May 2009, after years of exciting mountain-climbing, rock studying and adventuring, she became trapped in a cunningly-camouflaged martian sand pit, and there she has remained.

(image: AstroO, UMSF)

Nothing has been heard from her for many months now, and while many (most?) Mars rover fans and enthusiasts continue to believe that the rover is still alive, and is only hibernating, others are starting to believe that she might have died in the circuit-chilling cold of the recent cruel martian winter. The MER team remain optimistic, if realistic, and are continuing to listen for a signal from the rover indicating she is still alive. It might come any day! It might never come. All we can do is wait and see. What we could really do with is seeing an image like this suddenly returned by Spirit…

…but we shouldn’t hold our breath, probably… 😉

Soon after Spirit landed on Mars her sister rover, “Opportunity”, landed on the opposite side of the planet, and “Oppy” as she’s come to be known has been partying ever since. She’s beenenjoying a breathless,  crater-hopping tour since landing, driving to and then going into or around one hole in the martian ground after another. Along the way she’s found and studied amazing meteorites, been assaulted by dust storms, and watched dust devils dance across the distant horizon. Now she’s en-route to an enormous crater called “Endeavour”, and if she reaches it she’ll have a chance of studying minerals that might, might, provide us with priceless clues about the possibillity of life existing on Mars in the deep and distant past…

Two rovers. On Mars. For seven years. Imagine that. Think about that.

Since landing, the rovers have been followed by countless millions of people. Some casually – just checking in now and again, when they think to, or if a “rover story” makes the news – others more regularly and more faithfully. Some of us, the dedicated, hardcore “rover huggers” (we wear that badge proudly!) follow the rovers every single day, they’ve become a huge part of our lives. We check for new images from them every day. We plot their positions on maps and charts. We talk about them in internet forums, and use their raw black and white images to create beautiful (in our eyes!) mosaics and panoramas of the martian landscape. Some call us obsessed. Were not. We’re just loyal. We like to think of ourselves walking alongside Oppy as she heads towards Endeavour – or sitting down beside Spirit, with an arm draped over her cold shoulders, keeping her warm while she sleeps…

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know just how important the rovers have become to me. I’ve spent the past seven years making pictures out of their raws, lecturing and speaking in public about them, and writing about them in books and magazines and for countless websites. I’ve been inspired to write short stories and poetry about them, and every single day I do something involving them in some way. I’ve corresponded with many of the MER team (lovely people, all, always incredibly generous with their time) and have even been lucky enough to meet some of them, including Steve Squyres himself. I still find it head-shakingly hard to believe that I can actually call some of them my friends, now, too…

There must have been a time before Spirit and Opportunity were on Mars, but it’s hard to recall it. It feels like they’ve always been there, up there, out there, roving around the Red Planet, taking images of its cliffs and crevasses, its boulders and stones, rocks and mountains, for me and my fellow rover enthusiasts to devour.

It’s easy to forget sometimes how privileged we all are to have been VIP passengers on this incredible voyage of discovery and exploration. But it’s only because of the hard work, determination and sheer stubbornness/bloody mindedness of Jim Bell, Steve Squyres, Scott Maxwell, Paolo and countless, countless others that we’ve all been able to stand by the railings on the MER mission and see Mars drifting past with our own eyes. It’s easy to take it for granted sometimes that we can just wander over to our PCs, sit down with a cup of coffee and browse the latest images *of another planet*, often just hours after they were taken. But that is an enormous privilege, one that was fought for by people already mentioned, and every image is a gold nugget to be treasured. It’s easy to convince ourselves that tomorrow will be no different from today, that Oppy will keep rolling, and the pictures will keep rolling in. But over the horizon is a black, black day when everyone here will go online and find that it’s all come to a halt, that both rovers are dead, the last image has been returned from Mars by a rover, and this grand adventure has ended. So, as we celebrate seven years, everyone please take a moment to say “Thank you”, in your own way, to the men and women who have given us a new Mars, and who have let us sit next to them, looking over their shoulder, while they’ve done it.

My way of saying “thank you” was to collaborate with another good, self-confessed rover hugger friend of mine, UMSF member AstroO, on another of our poster poems celebrating this latest milestone in the MER mission, and here it is…

If you click on that image you will see a larger version, but much better that you go to AstroO’s own blog  and download the largest available version for yourself…

I truly believe that in the far, far future, when the solar system is colonised and Mankind is living on every bit of rock and ice he can find between Mercury and Sedna, the rovers will just be ancient history for us here on Earth, but on Mars, they will be legends. Their statues will be everywhere; people will follow their routes across Mars; martian artists and composers will be inspired by them; martian scientists and engineers will shake their heads in wonder at how much they achieved, how far they travelled, how long they endured.

And if, one deep future day, Mars is terraformed, and sleek ships sail the new martian oceans beneath kingfisher blue, cloud-dotted skies, many of those ships will be christened “Spirit” and “Opportunity” in their honour, continuing their journeys across Mars.

Seven years on Mars.

Imagine that… 🙂

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One Response

  1. Seven years is a long time for these rovers to be functioning on mars.Cant wait for are new friend the science laboratory to arrive to do some deep exploring on life.Its amazing, we got these rovers to stay alive with out touching any of them. To bad we cant send a dozen or so rover at a time for every thing!

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