The eventual death of Spirit and Opportunity
Mars Rovers in Autumn: A Life-and-Death Drama on the Red Planet
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 07:00 am ET
06 May 2004
Last month, NASA gave the go-ahead for both Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- to keep on rolling.
Each robot has been handed up to five months of overtime assignments after completing their individual three-month prime mission.
"Even though the extended mission is approved to September, and the rovers could last even longer, they also might stop in their tracks next week or next month," said Firouz Naderi, Manager of Mars Exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where the rovers were built and are controlled.
Scientists and engineers running the automated emissaries from Earth have already made a long, productive haul of exploration and discovery. And there is no doubt that a very real and intense human/machine bonding has occurred.
That being the case, how does one cope with "robot death" on distant Mars? Emotional ties
"There are very definitely strong emotional ties to the rovers," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and principal investigator for the science payload carried on each of the rovers.
"We poured our hearts and souls into these things for years, so how wouldn't there be? In fact, for me personally, it was actually a little hard just to say goodbye to them at launch. It's going to be very hard to say goodbye to them forever," Squyres told SPACE.com.
As to how Squyres and his colleagues will deal with the eventual loss of the Mars machinery, he responded: "I don't know... ask me that when we get to that point. The sadness from losing the vehicles will be balanced, in part, by a big plus. We'll get our lives back! Flight operations have been exhausting, involving a lot of time away from our families. So, in that regard, life will certainly get easier after they're gone."
Squyres added that the impact of saying so long to the revered rovers is lessened by a central fact.
"The mission has been so successful. If we lost them before they had accomplished much...that would be very painful. Losing them after they have led such long and productive lives will not be as bad. But still, it's going to be hard," Squyres admitted.Stayin' alive
The newly approved extension provides $15 million for operating the rovers through September -- added on top of the $820 million already spent.
Those two robot Mars pioneers are a technological brew of circuit boards, computer, battery, solar panels, telecommunications hardware and science instruments. Each the size of a golf-cart, Spirit and Opportunity must wheel and deal with the planet's exotic environment, treacherous terrain, and night/day temperature swings.
Despite being put together with tender loving care, the robots will eventually succumb