Medina County Courthouse

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mars and the Rovers

By Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer

When the giant lighted ball drops in Time Square on December 31st, we will – whether we’re ready or not – enter 2010 and thus leave the “aughts” behind us. Even though by the official count we don’t enter the new decade until next year, dropping the second zero in the date is going to make it feel like we’re in a new decade despite what the timekeepers tell us.

Any of us who did most of our growing up in the 20th century remember hearing all sorts of predictions – dire and otherwise – about “the year 2000.” Now, incredibly, that date is ten years distant in the rearview mirror. And so it is that as we enter late December, we can look back not only on 2009, but on this first decade of the 21st century as well.

Each year the Associated Press conducts a poll of editors and news directors from around the country to determine the biggest news stories of the year. For 2009, the number one story, according to that poll, was “the economy,” followed closely by the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The sweeping overhaul of health care came in third, with the struggles of the auto industry fourth and the story of the swine flu fifth.

Death was the predominant feature of the next four stories: Afghanistan, Michael Jackson’s death, the Fort Hood rampage, and Senator Edward Kennedy’s passing were six, seven, eight and nine. The story of the US Airways passenger jet that crashed in the Hudson rounded out the top ten stories of the past year.

As usual, most of the stories focused on bad things. Looking back further, the same is basically true for the biggest stories of the past ten years. If you’ll recall, we exited the 1990s terribly concerned about the impending Y2K crisis. Happily that never materialized. But then, before we had barely begun the 21st century, we were hit with something we never saw coming – the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
That was, unquestionably, the biggest story of the decade. And after that, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominated headlines year after year. Throw in Hurricane Katrina – the largest natural disaster in our nation’s history – and the sub-prime mortgage crisis coupled with the economic woes that followed and you’ve got ten year’s worth of bad news.

But not all of the news was bad; there was one particularly upbeat little story that played out over the course of the decade that didn’t get much play. That’s typical of course; it’s the bad news that grabs the headlines.
So what was the happy story that got so little attention? Well, you’d have to look pretty far to find it – like millions of miles away.

The story began in 2003 with the launch of two rockets bound for Mars. Each rocket carried a “rover” – a little six-wheeled vehicle – that could travel over the Martian terrain and be remotely controlled by NASA engineers on Earth. The rovers were to land on the red planet and explore the surface in detail, with the specific mission to look for evidence that water once existed on Mars.

Equipped with cameras to send back images, robotic arms to allow them to dig in the dirt and extract soil and rock samples, and other instruments for conducting various experiments, the rovers – named Spirit and Opportunity – were expected to do their work and relay their data for 90 days. Beyond that time, NASA engineers anticipated that the harsh winter conditions would freeze the rovers, and the dust from the planet would cover the solar panels and prevent the batteries from recharging.
Spirit landed on January 4, 2004; Opportunity followed three weeks later, landing on the other side of the planet. Both arrived in good shape and began their assigned missions. At the end of their 90 days, Spirit and Opportunity – living up to their names – were still going strong, relaying data, and responding to commands from Earth as well as ever. So the mission was extended.

NASA had always hoped that the rovers would operate beyond 90 days, and early in the mission the engineers began to believe that both might last for as many as 200 days. That was in 2004. Today, at the end of 2009, both of these magnificent little machines are still operating, more than 2000 days after landing on Mars.
The rovers have performed incredibly well. Spirit was originally intended to travel at least 984 feet across the Martian surface; it has now gone almost five miles. Opportunity has traveled more than 7 miles. The rovers have sent back tens of thousands of fantastic images, and abundant information on the planet’s geology – including evidence of Mars’s warmer, wetter past.

Remarkably, Mars itself has helped out. On several occasions, when the solar panels were coated in dust so thick that it threatened to kill the rovers, timely wind gusts and dust devils kicked up that cleaned the panels and restored power.

Even the mishaps have proved advantageous. When Spirit developed a bum front wheel, engineers turned it around and traveled in reverse. The bad wheel, dragging behind, inadvertently uncovered a patch of ground that scientists say shows evidence of a past environment that would have been perfect for microbial life.

Is all of this a major story that should be dominating the headlines? Perhaps not. But when NASA messes up, it’s big news and we hear about it. This happy success, on the other hand, goes largely unnoticed, and that’s a shame because it’s a great story; an engineering marvel and a triumph of the human spirit that deserves attention.

And so, as we depart this first decade of the 21st century – amidst all the bad news of disasters and crises and wars – maybe we can take some small comfort in a bit of good news about two rugged little machines that wouldn’t quit, and that, in their way, represent what humanity – at its best – can accomplish.
Happy New Year everyone.

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