From the death of Muhammad Ali, to Hillary “clinching” the Democratic presidential nomination, to the shooting at the UCLA campus, this past week has had its fair share of big news stories. It’s understandable that some events will fall by the wayside when so much else is going on.
With that being said, this post is about a hole that was drilled on Monday, June 6th, 2016. Not just ANY hole (and definitely not a hole in Louis Sachar’s book from 1998), but the 12th hole that has been dug on a planet over 200 million miles away from Earth. The first hole on this planet was about 1.6 cm wide and 6.4 cm deep, and the holes have been dug by a mobile laboratory the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
In case you haven’t already figured it out, the planet is Mars and the lab is the Curiosity Rover. Curiosity landed on the Red Planet in August 2012 after traveling through space for about nine months. It isn’t the first rover to explore Mars, but it’s by far the most advanced & durable machine currently rolling around its surface. The photos that Curiosity has captured of its surroundings are jaw-dropping (I’m not using that as a hyperbole, and please don’t click that link if you’re on mobile or if you’re on a slow connection), and the data it’s collecting has proven to be very valuable for the scientists back home.
So why am I this excited about a hole? Well, for one thing there are now twelve holes that have been dug by a human-made machine on a planet that humans have never touched with their own space boots. As we freak out about the 2016 election and the NBA Finals and the return of Hawaiian shirts as fashionable summer attire this year (yay!), there is a machine rolling and digging and taking photographs on a speck of light that you can occasionally see from your bedroom window. It is receiving commands, executing said commands, and providing results even though thousands upon thousands of miles separate the machine from its user.
Also, if your lifelong dream was to play golf on another planet, we’re 66% of the way there! Take that, Tiger.
I’m constantly reminded that there are bigger things at work than the ebb and flow of daily life on Earth. We’ve sent countless satellites into space, we’ve built and expanded upon the International Space Station, we have incredible telescopes that are photographing distant galaxies, and we sent a camera so deep into our solar system that we’re finally able to see Pluto for the first time in the history of the human race. It reminds me of a famous quote from Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo astronaut who passed away earlier this year, after seeing Earth from our moon:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
Despite all of these incredible developments in space exploration, the only thing that has fascinated me more than the journey of the New Horizons space probe has been the various Mars rover programs. Ever since I was a kid, I loved knowing that waaaaaay out in outer space there was a little machine or two driving over rugged alien terrain searching for life, water, & not to be too dramatic, “meaning.”
Curiosity has several older relatives on the Red Planet, all relics from earlier NASA missions and programs. Viking 1 and 2 were a pair of probes & landers that touched down on the surface of Mars in 1976, and they provided invaluable information that helped us understand the planet better than we ever thought possible. Both landers eventually failed; Viking 1 was retired due to a “human error” that lowered its antenna during a software update, and Viking 2 had a battery failure. They lasted for 3 years 7 months and 6 years 3 months, respectively.
The Mars Pathfinder mission included the first rover to operate on the surface of Mars: Sojourner. It landed on Mars in 1997, and although it only lasted about three months (the on-board battery failed), it proved that we could successfully operate a rover on Mars & we gathered valuable information on the climate and atmospheric conditions on Mars.
The Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) is what kicked off my fascination with I will affectionately call “twin space buggies.” In 2003 NASA launched two separate probes (with rovers) towards Mars: Spirit and Opportunity. They landed in January 2004. You have to keep in mind that I spent most of my life in Houston, Texas, and our city can be pretty crazy when it comes to space. I remember going to Space Center Houston with my father for a Cub Scouts trip, and I was able to spend the night in the facility. I also remember getting periodic updates from my science teachers whenever Spirit or Opportunity did something cool. These two rovers basically arrived on Mars at the perfect time for me to follow their entire journey, since I was in 6th grade when they landed and I was in that “sweet spot” of adolescence where this kind of technological and scientific exploration BLEW MY MIND (not that my mind isn’t blown as often nowadays…the Pluto photos fixed that).
With that being said, Spirit was the first to go, and let me tell you, if you thought The Martian was a great film, just wait until the inevitable documentary about this little guy. Spirit’s original life expectancy was about 90 sols (or 90 days on Mars), but it ended up functioning for over 2,200 sols. Both Spirit and Opportunity kept having their missions extended as scientists realized that their rovers could survive for MUCH longer than they’d originally anticipated. The two rovers functioned independently and were located in separate locations, so Spirit had its own set of objectives to follow. It was the first rover to climb a hill on another planet, it found evidence of water from an older Mars, and it ended up traveling over 12 times the distance than NASA had originally planned. It took fantastic panoramas of the Martian landscape which were sent down to Earth to be included in countless textbooks, Scholastic picture books, and space-enthusiast magazines. Then, in March 2006 one of Spirit’s wheels decided to quit, and NASA literally dragged it behind the rover until it reached its intended destination one month later. What a trooper.
After surviving dust storms and computer reboot issues (and managing to provide even more scientific discoveries in the Martian soil because its broken wheel was churning up traces of water and sulphur), it became stuck in soft sand. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, and the team in charge of Spirit created a separate webpage called “Free Spirit” so that people like you and me could follow their efforts to free it from its sand trap. The rover’s plight made global news, and journalists chronicled NASA’s efforts to try and figure out a way to get it out. Wired wrote this article in July 2009 [link no longer active] detailing a simulated Martian surface used to practice escape maneuvers that the engineers could then use for Spirit, and bumper stickers were created to support both the rover and the team trying to save it.
It’s easy to see why this entire ordeal was so engrossing, especially for me (even though I was getting ready to start my first year in college). Spirit and Opportunity were underdogs in the truest sense of the word: they beat the odds and, like the Energizer bunny commercials, they just kept going and going and going and going. Spirit, in particular, had been forced to endure forces that would have wiped out the Pathfinder rover pretty darn quickly, yet here it was, six years later, still functioning despite its two broken wheels and a grave of sand. The rover didn’t have a heart, or a soul, or a conscience, but it was doing what humans were physically incapable of doing at that time, and we had to do everything in our power to not let it die such a sad, lame death after it had accomplished so much.
In the end, though, the sand won. Spirit’s last communication with Earth was in March 2010, and NASA officially retired “the little rover that could” in May 2011. Sigh.
And what about Opportunity? Why haven’t I dedicated paragraph after paragraph to Spirit’s brother? Well, I forgot to mention that the Mars Exploration Rover Mission is ONGOING. The Opportunity rover is still active and has been in operation for over 12 years, 48 times its original lifespan of 90 sols. It continues to send back data and, along with its distant cousin Curiosity, it is still rolling around the red planet.
There are official Twitter accounts dedicated to playing the roles of Curiosity and Opportunity & sending their findings straight to our cellphones. The Rosetta Mission also has its own Twitter account, and the conversation between the Philae Probe and the European Space Agency after Philae’s landing was adorable. Even New Horizons has a Twitter account, and it’s constantly sending back new images from its flyby of Pluto. In this day and age, following the daily comings and goings of a distant machine in space is as easy as following your favorite celebrity or receiving text notifications from a friend.
So I apologize if you were annoyed by my infatuation with robots who can neither feel nor speak, and I also apologize for getting excited whenever a hole is dug on Mars. But I don’t think that there is anything you can do to wean me off of my excitement for space exploration and the findings that result from it. And while Elon Musk’s self-landing rocket boosters are da bomb, nothing can top the pair of Wall-E robots that are currently paving the way for our inevitable manned exploration of Mars. And if I win the lottery & manage to cram an unfathomable amount of science knowledge into my humble brain in order to make the flight, I hope to shake their hands one day.
Sorry, not hands. Robotic arms? Camera poles?
Screw it. We both know that I’ll be taking a selfie regardless.