Weekly Robot Update 002
The two rovers touched down on Martian soil in January of 2004. After a seven month trip through the cosmos followed by a parachute and airbag landing that would whiten the hair of even the most X-Treme sportsman. They arrived on opposite sides of the red planet with a projected life expectancy of 90 days. Here we are two years after the expiration of their warranty, and the little guys are still going strong. The rovers have gone above and beyond all expectations, reaching areas of Mars that their designers never thought possible.
The two rovers are identical in everything but name, but apart from each other they are completely unique machines. Each rover stands five feet tall at the eye line. They weigh in at a whopping 408 pounds. Propelled by six independently motorized wheels, four of which can be used for steering. A rover can spin in place without moving forward or backward. More a rolling laboratory than a speed demon, the rovers average about 1 centimeter a second travel speed. In addition, it stops every ten seconds for a good long look around. That being said, each rover has put over four miles of martian surface behind it. A 20Mhz processor handles all the mental heavy lifting needed to run the rovers, with 128 megs of ram and 256 megs of flash memory. (Specs that are now out done by many cellphones.) A radio isotope keeps the rovers warm during the frigid martian nights. Each rover is powered entirely by the sun, their backs are covered in wing like solar arrays which charge a pair of lithium ion batteries.
Martian beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, so Spirit and Opportunity have nine eyes a piece; Six to make sure they get where they are going without smashing into rocks, or falling into craters, two to capture those breathtaking martian panoramas that made the rovers so famous, and one that is a microscope for getting to the bottom of martian mysteries. The rovers aren't just a pretty set of peepers. They come fully stocked with a rock abrasion tool (fancy NASA phrase for drill/grinder), dust collecting magnets, and enough Spectrometers to satisfy even Mr. Spock. The rovers each reach out to mars with single three jointed arms that can hold many of their instruments.
Spirit and Opportunity are more than just collections of parts and pages of schematics. These intrepid robots really resonate with the explorer in all of us. Their mission has been a roller coaster of set backs and discoveries. In the week following Spirits touchdown on the red planet, NASA's website received a record breaking 1.7 Billion hits! Every picture of every rock excited scientists and the arm chair explorers at home. We held our collective breaths when Spirit first failed to communicate with earth. (A problem later fixed by a software patch.) Shortly after, in March, NASA report that the rovers findings suggested that mars once had regions covered in flowing water, something that has changed the way we now look at the universe. At one point Opportunity had become mired in martian sand, and teams on earth had to work tirelessly to even get it moving again. Later, a strange phenomenon of martian dust devils cleaned Opportunity's solar panels doubling it's power output.
Just recently Spirit has been seeking a refuge from the coming martian winter, if it reaches a place where it can get good exposure to the sun, it will not have to hibernate through winter. But now one of it's front wheels has ceased to function entirely. Spirit continues to roll toward safety, dragging it's broken wheel through the sand. The machines push on, 800 days it what should have been a three month mission. They are a testament to the men and women who built them. A constant reminder of the kind of things NASA is doing right. More than that, Spirit and Opportunity have returned Mars to us. The discovery of the evidence of water, the constant stream of gigabyte after gigabyte of new information, has restored the thoughts of our nearest cosmic neighbor to the forefronts of our minds. Already a slew of new mars missions are planned and underway. The government has now declared a plan to deliver human beings to the red planet in the near future. That is the real reason these robots are so important.
Inevitably, men will go to mars. Whatever government or philosophy they represent, they will be following in the wheel tracks of their robot predecessors. Some day when brick red habitat domes pepper the martian landscape, may we remember the explorers that were there before us, and name the first two martian colonies Spirit and Opportunity.
I used to live 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"
— Sofi Collis, age 9