Any day now one of my dearest friends – perhapseven two of them – will die, leaving a huge hole in my world. Even though I'veimagined and rehearsed it in my mind countless times I don't know how I'llreact when I hear the news, which I've known is coming for a couple of yearsnow; all I know is that when the awful day comes, and I read the announcement,I'll feel like a part of me has died too.
So who are these beloved friends? Treasuredschoolmates from years ago, suffering from some terrible illness? Workcolleagues, injured in a horrible accident and left lying in a bed, with dripsin their arms and machines beeping around them like R2D2? No. They're machines.Robots. Or, to be more precise, rovers. I know them as "LameSpirit" and "Oppy," but you'll know them better as 'Spirit'and 'Opportunity,' the Mars Exploration Rovers, and to me, they've developedcharacters and personalities every bit as loveable and real as Artoo's. They'relike Serenitys on wheels.
I'm proud of them and all they've achieved,those plucky, apparently immortal machines. They arrived on Mars all thoseyears ago so bright and so shiny, their clean metalwork flashing in the Martiansun as they emerged like aluminum butterflies from their cocoons. Now they'reweary and worn, and each day they wake seems like a miracle. Oppy is still inpretty good shape as she works her way around the serrated rim of VictoriaCrater, but on the other side of Mars my poor gal Spirit is suffering.Smothered in Sun-dimming, circuit-clogging dust and dragging a frozen wheelbehind her as she hauls herself around Homeplate, she's on borrowed time and sheknows it.
In fact, everyone following their incrediblemission – from the white bunny-suited techs who physically built the rovers, tothe Mars nuts like me who follow their journeys of exploration daily on ourflickering PC screens – knows that both rovers are living charmed lives now. Bothrovers have now survived on Mars ten times longerthan they were expected to, so every day (sorry, every 'sol') is a bonus. Ifboth died while I wrote these very words, they would have fulfilled theirmission a thousand times over, and no-one would consider their passingpremature.
Except people like me.
Scattered around this achingly beautiful blueand white globe – by now pale-skinned and square-eyed after countless hoursspent locked indoors staring at flickering monitors – there are many thousandsof people who have, since Sol 1, been the rovers' constant companions as theyrolled across the rugged Martian landscape. We've walked patiently andfaithfully alongside these incredible, death-defying space age Lewis and Clarksas they trundled across the wide open spaces of Barsoom.
Sitting here, typing this, I can rememberkeeping Oppy company as she explored the rubble-strewn interiors of Eagle andthen Endurance crater, before helping her weave her way around bank afterendless bank of deathtrap dunes of butterscotch-hued dust on her epic trek toMeridiani's Deep South. I was there, brushing fine grains of dust from Spirit's aching backas she trundled past wind-sculpted outcrops of ancient, jagged rock on her wayup the rugged slopes of Husband Hill, urging her onwards, telling her she cando it, she Can Do It, she just has to keep going ? and after triumphantlyreaching the Hill's summit with her, I paused with her there, with my handsresting on her dust-scratched solar panels, staring down with her in wide-eyedwonder at the rusted world below?
Of course, I didn't do all those things really,but it felt like it as I sat here, mouse click-a-clicking on one weblink afteranother. Looking at the latest images from the rovers has become every much apart of my daily routine as brushing my teeth or swearing at a politician'slies on TV. I get up, and before I go to work – before I've even rubbed thesleep out of my eyes – I've booted up my PC, gone online and headed straight toExploratorium to see if any new images came down thru the night. Back from workhours later and before my bag has even hit the floor I'm checking for newpictures again, letting out a disappointed sigh if there are none to be found,celebrating with a "Yes!!" if an as yet unclicked link, written inglorious bright blue, appears at the foot of the list?
I now have two homes. In the Real World I have aflat, with shelves groaning under the weight of copies of books about Mars andwalls decorated with printouts of MER pictures. In the world we so quaintlyused to call Cyberspace I live on a forum called Unmanned Spaceflight.com,now one of the world's most respected meeting places for people with a passionfor space exploration. There we talk about the rovers and their discoveriesdaily, discuss what we can see – and sometimes think we can see! – onthe new images, and even post our own images, Photoshop merged and colorizedversions of the already-spectacular black and white raw images enjoyed byEveryone Else. Every time I log on to UMSF I feel as welcome and comfortable asNorm walking through the door in Cheers.
And every time I log on I feel a cold nugget offear in the pit of my stomach as I wonder if this is the time I read that oneof my friends has died.
I'm heading there now, just as soon as I'vefinished writing this.
Not tonight. Please, not tonight?
- RedPlanet Rovers: Still Stalking Science
- Mars Rover Special Report
- All About Mars' Watery Past
NOTE: Theviews of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of theNational Space Society.
Visit SPACE.com/Ad Astra Online for morenews, views and scientific inquiry from the National Space Society.