By Lyle Bateman
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
Mars is perhaps the most storied planet in our solar system. For centuries, writers and thinkers have been telling tales about the red planet. These tales have ranged from Mars as the God of War, through the vast civilizations of Edgar Rice Burroughs and HG Wells, to the more recent story of a dead, lifeless planet.
In the modern world, we are writing a new story about Mars, this one authored by the robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity. After nearly four years (earth years) the two rovers have gathered a wealth of data that has, in many cases, almost redefined our previous notions of Mars. Once thought to be a waterless desert, Spirit and Opportunity come as close as possible to confirming that Mars has, and had, water, without actually falling into a lake. Thanks to the “little rovers that could”, there is real excitement over the possibility of some form of life on Mars, an idea that even 2 decades ago was considered pretty far-fetched by most of mainstream science. In the picture that starts this post, you can see some fascinating white soil recently turned over by Spirit’s wheels. On further investigation, scientists have announced the discovery of silica-rich soil. Such soil on earth is related either to volcanic steam, or hot springs. Both of these environments, on earth, are usually associated with life.
Both Spirit and Opportunity have performed far above expectations. Originally built to last 90 days, the rovers are still going strong, long after the warranty expired. On the left you can see the path Spirit followed in its explorations of Mars in its first 1379 days, and it is now looking for a winter parking spot and a chance to recharge its batteries.
What more discoveries await? Its hard to know what else the rovers will find, given that they’ve found so many unexpected things already. I doubt that Spirit will ever answer the question of life on Mars definitively… it isn’t really equipped to fully probe for life. But in the 1400-odd sols that the rovers have tracked across Mars, we’ve learned invaluable things for building the probes that can answer that question once and for all.
Spirit and Opportunity weren’t the first Mars landers, and they certainly won’t be the last. They have certainly paved the way for the robotic and manned missions to follow, but even that isn’t their greatest achievement. What is most remarkable about the rovers is how radically they have re-written our stories about Mars. In ancient days, we looked on Mars and marveled at lives and Gods beyond our imagination. In Victorian days, we looked on Mars and imagined vast complexes of life. In more recent days, we imagined a dead, lifeless desert. Spirit and Opportunity have re-written that story once again, and today, we gaze upon Mars and speculate about water and ice and life. Sleep well through the Martian winter Rovers… and tell us more of the story next year.