NASA’s Mars Explorations Rovers were named Spirit and Opportunity by Sofi Collis, a third-grade Russian-American student, who wrote, in her winning essay, “I lived in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.’
These “twin robot geologists,”were built with a 90-day mission in mind. Launched in Summer 2003, landing in January of 2004, they’ve been on Mars scouting around for seven years now. Well, actually, “no communication has been received from Spirit” since march of last year, but Opportunity is still mobile, and “in goood health.”
I heard Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the “science payload” on the Rovers project, give a talk about NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers at the American Museum of Natural History in 2005 on the occasion of the publication of his book, Roving Mars. In his talk, he gave an account of the long process of developing the Rovers, and the logistics of getting approval for funding. He talked about how he spent years with the Rovers in the lab and that it was rare that he would leave the lab for a talk because he spent most of his time remotely operating the Rovers. He could make a gesture and it would extend to Mars.
Squyres talked about how each rover was aimed at a specific landing site, the Gusev Crater, suspected to be a former lake, and Meridiani Planum, where mineral deposits (hematite) suggested a history of water. He explained the mechanics of their landings and talked about the finer points of steering a vehicle from 250 million miles away.
His talk was brisk and packed with technical information about the particulars of detecting the signature of liquid water in a wide range of Martian rocks and soils. He described the different instruments performing these studies, the cameras, spectrometers, magnets, rock abrasion tools (or RATs) carried by the rovers.
During the Q&A, someone asked him if the Rovers were equipped to take audio samples. He answered that they’d decided it wasn’t a priority, given the other kinds of samples they needed, and the funding challenges for those. Anyway, he said, if we did equip the Rovers with audio recorders, what you’d basically hear would be the Rovers. Then a beat, and his affect softened, But it would be so nice to hear them again.