Saturday, May 28, 2011

Things That Make You Go Wow!

Tim Rutten's latest column reminded me of what I consider to be one of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's finest accomplishments: the twin robotic rovers sent to Mars to do a little geological prospecting. It was thought that the two mechanical critters would move around a few feet, gather and analyze some Mars dirt, and, after a couple of months, that would be that. Well, that's not how it worked out.

...the scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La CaƱada Flintridge announced that the rover Spirit's seven-year exploration of Mars had come to an end. Originally designed to send back data on a few hundred yards of the Red Planet for just three months, Spirit roamed for miles over years before giving up the ghost to a bitter Martian winter. Its epic journey fundamentally changed our understanding of the most Earth-like of the other planets. And its robotic twin, Opportunity, continues to explore the other side of Mars.

"What's most remarkable to me about Spirit's mission is just how extensive her accomplishments became," said Cornell University's Steve Squyres, the rovers' principal investigator. "What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity's first real overland expedition across another planet."

While the project certainly wasn't done on the cheap (which is one reason the two rovers have lasted far more than the three month time frame), it was far less expensive in real dollars than the man-on-the-moon and the shuttle projects. It was also less costly in terms of human life. Yet the two rovers have arguably provided us with equivalent amounts of information and surprises.

Yes, as Rutten points out, many would prefer actual human exploration of the universe around us. We would like to see with our own eyes, touch other worlds with our own hands, but that is simply not possible for technological and (just as importantly) economic reasons right now. Humans will have to rely on surrogates such as Spirit and Opportunity to do our exploration for us. That these two surrogates have done so brilliantly is a testament to human ingenuity and the human passion to know.

So, to the engineers and scientists of JPL: thanks for a job well-done.

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Blogger Hecate said...

Very cool.

5:20 AM  
Blogger Xan said...

The Brave Little Rover Goes to Mars

(can't remember if html is allowed but what the heck, link should still be good.) :)

8:49 AM  

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