August 19 Weekly Open Thread: Autonomous Vehicles Week Kicks Off
We start out this week with what may be one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck projects in NASA history: The Spirit and Opportunity rovers. In fact, this could realistically be posted as a Very Good Year story as they were launched 10 years ago. . .and how many of us remember what we were doing in 2003?
What I want to just briefly highlight here is these two indefatigable rovers, whose original mission duration was set at a mere 90 Martian days and here they are, still (mostly) in operation almost ten years after they landed on Mars. Spirit was launched on June 10, 2003 and Opportunity followed on July 7. After journeys of six months they both landed in January of 2004. They were both fairly ungainly-looking but proved to be exceptionally rugged in operation and after their original mission periods, both were extended indefinitely, or until they were no longer operable.
Sadly, Spirit's time came on March 10, 2010 (day 2210 of the mission) when contact was lost. It had been having trouble with one wheel and had become stuck in soft sand, whereby it was decided it was to act as a stationary observation platform until it stopped transmitting. It was officially declared "dead" in May of 2011 when attempts to regain contact ceased. At that time it had logged 25 times its alloted time on Mars and covered over 7 kilometers (4.8 miles) of ground, far exceeding its planned range of 600 meters.
Opportunity, however, soldiered on and, at the time of this writing, is still rolling around Mars conducting scientific observations.
I have to admit that I always had a soft spot for Spirit, probably because it kind of got the short end of the stick, location-wise, and most of the important discoveries were made initially by Opportunity. And it always seemed to be having problems of some sort; I like the whole underdog theme she had going (both rovers were always considered to be females). I'll also readily admit that part of that has to do with some wag's initiation of a LiveJournal for Spirit which is utterly charming in its light humor. At any rate, it's hard not to feel a bit of sadness at her passing.
These weren't the first Mars probes, nor even the first Mars rovers -- that honor goes to the Pathfinder mission with its little rover Sojourner -- but their design and construction have bequeathed to us a wealth of data on Mars and given us a great example of what talented engineers can do when they put their minds to it.
The rest of this week will be devoted to other autonomous vehicles, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. They may not be ready for the American driveway as yet, but the systems they are experimenting with may eventually find their ways into yer average grocery-getter in the not too distant future.
The image here is a self-portrait of Spirit taken on Martian day 586, from Wikipedia.