It’s that time again. Every so often, life on our planet just seems so bleak there’s nowhere to look but out. That was certainly the case this past week. Not only did the usual whack-a-mole wars keep flaring and simmering, even good things had their dark sides. Here in Japan, the welcome birth of a prince sidelined a proposal that might have helped bring women a step closer to full equality.
In Australia, mass mourning for a popular wildlife conservationist, killed earlier this month by a stingray, turned ghastly when multiple stingrays were found slain and mutilated on beaches. Let’s face it, people can be depressing. There’s nothing for it but to ignore earthly affairs for a bit and check back with Spirit and Opportunity, out there in space.
For those who’ve forgotten, Spirit and Opportunity are the little unmanned exploration vehicles that NASA launched in the summer of 2003 — the year a U.S.-led coalition launched a shock-and-awe mission in Iraq — for what was expected to be a similarly brief sojourn on Mars.
The rovers, as they’re called, landed on opposite sides of the red planet in January 2004 and immediately began relaying back pictures and information that caused much awe of a different kind here on Earth. Their life expectancy: about three months. Some 31 months later, like the war in Iraq, they’re still going. They’re not going strong, exactly.
As one of the project’s top scientists put it recently, taking the long view: “We’ve lurched from disaster to disaster to disaster.” A wheel stopped working. Software programs had to be rebooted. The rovers’ robotic arms have grown stiff, and they’ve gotten bogged a lot in the Martian dunes. Yet in the latest update from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, both are cheerfully described as “healthy” and busy with their often wondrously myopic tasks. Last week, Spirit was photographing its deck, among other things, and Opportunity finished looking at some scuff marks it had made a few sols, or Martian days, earlier. Technically, they’re a pair of miracles.
It’s not the rovers’ birthday this week, or any other red-letter occasion. It’s just another sol on Mars. But that’s what makes it an apt time to remember that they’re still up there, representing us so well to the rest of the galaxy. The rovers show humanity’s best side — not the squabbling, murderous side, but the diligent, enduring side.
In a way, they are all about what the Christian liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time.” In secular terms, that’s the way life is for most of us — repetitive, law-abiding and anonymous. We look back a lot at our own scuff marks. It’s all a bit of a grind, really, in ordinary time. (The rovers grind a lot, with their special rock-abrasion tools). Like the rovers, we will grind on until we die. Unlike them, we will complain about it.
The great thing about the rovers is that they highlight the humor that lurks in ordinary time. Their very names, “Spirit” and “Opportunity,” are amusing, if only because they are so absurdly inflated. (With their humble, dutiful personalities, the rovers are really more like a Bill and a Bob.) And for those times when the news just adds a layer of distress to the everyday tedium, NASA’s “sol-by-sol” updates of their doings are one of the best sources of cheer and even wisdom that we know.
The rovers, for example, never hurry. They drive a lot, but they’re not all Type A about it. A 100-meter trip was a huge accomplishment for Opportunity during one sol last week. They also “bump” as in, “Opportunity bumped to a rover arm target — and conducted untargeted remote sensing.”
They can spend a whole sol bumping, as who wouldn’t? It sounds like a fun way to go. And entire sols can be taken up with untargeted remote sensing, which we can only assume means hanging out on the deck letting the galaxy go by. No wonder the rovers have lasted this long. They know how to put their health first.
Yet they are also painstaking. Spirit, for example, spends sols at a time checking the atmosphere for dust and scanning the sky for clouds. Opportunity has been the same way recently about those scuff marks, “Powell” and “Powell’s Brother,” of which it has examined every last millimeter. You know you’re doing thorough work when you have official names for your scuff marks. And what’s the result? Job satisfaction, another factor in good health.
Last spring, NASA reported that the rovers were already “baby boomers,” in their 50s or 60s in human terms. Pretty soon, their successors will arrive on Mars. Let’s hope that doesn’t stop them bumping right on into old age. The mission’s project manager also dubbed them “national treasures” recently. From where we sit, they deserve a tip of the hat from the whole world.
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