We all know – even if we don’t like to think about it! – that the Mars Exploration Rovers aren’t immortal. One day, one sad, sad day, they will stop working, and the epic MER mission will be over. Spirit might actually have stopped working already, we just don’t know. But we do know that the rovers, as amazing as they are, won’t… can’t… last forever. One day they’ll both have fallen silent, and this incredible journey we’re all on, walking virtually beside these two robot geologists as they explore Mars, will be over.
What then? What does the future hold for the rovers after they “die”?
Well, in the near to medium term, they’ll almost certainly begin to be covered by the ever-present martian dust. We know this will happen because HiRISE images of the Phoenix polar lander and its parachute and backshell show thay have all been given a right old dusting, so there’s no way Spirit and Oppy will be able to avoid a similar fate. So… years pass… tens of years pass, and slowly, but surely, the two rovers will be covered by dust. They might only be partially covered, or they might be completely buried by it, but one thing is certain – nothing will be able to stop it.
But that won’t be their ultimate fate. Eventually – thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years from now, who knows? – people will travel to and land on Mars, and although they won’t spend their precious time on the surface looking for old space hardware for the first half dozen or so missions, at the very least, eventually Mars will have a thriving colony, or settlement, a permanent and growing human population, and as the martians start to get all sentimental about their past, and start feeling that inevitable human desire to celebrate and protect their heritage and their history, they’ll make time to head out into the wilds to collect, and bring back, the spaceprobes that came before them. They’ll track down the locations of the Russian Mars 3 lander, the twin Viking landers, and the “plucky little Sojourner rover” that landed with Pathfinder, dig them out of the dust and bring them back to the settlement, where they’ll be placed in a “Museum of Exploration”, alongside whatever they can find of what’s left of ill-fated Beagle 2…
And, of course, the Mars Exploration Rovers will be retrieved, dusted off and repaired, and put on display in the Museum too, given pride of place, I’m sure, in their own special gallery, along with their backshells and parachutes, many of the famous rocks they studied during their travels, and huge reproductions of some of the most famous and dramatic of the tens of thousands of images they took during their journeys. They’ll be lit by spotlights, and kept safe from sticky hands by ropes or glass, behind signs advising Museum visitors that touching the rovers is strictly prohibited. Of course, some will anyway, because humans feel this almost primal need to reach out and touch objects from history, it makes us feel closer to them, connected to the events themselves…
So, martian colonists, and settlers, and tourists from Earth and other worlds across the solar system, will be able to go to the Museum of Mars and see for themselves the amazing “Mars rovers”, that blazed a trail across Mars all those many years ago…
But it won’t end there.
Because away from the base, Out There, on the great plains of Mars, the Mars rovers’ legacies won’t be forgotten. Although time and countless martian dust storms will have obliterated all traces of their wheel tracks, it will still be possible to follow their routes across Mars, and people WILL follow their routes, just as tourists here on Earth follow the paths of historic journeys – the Oregon Trail, Hadrian’s Wall, etc, and walks around towns and cities – today.
Well, imagine it’s the year 2110. It’s seventy years after the first manned landing, and Mars has been settled. There are three colonies on Mars, as well as a pair of space stations and outposts on both Phobos and Deimos. The first “native martians” have been born too, pale-skinned, long-limbed children who have never known a blue sky or the feel of rain on their faces – and talk is turning, perhaps inevitably, to martian independance and the start of terraforming. You’re on Mars at that time, a hard-working geologist from Earth, two years into your four year tour-of-duty, and you have some well-earned and long-awaited vacation time coming up. What do you do? Hike up Olympus Mons? No. Too expensive. Go on one of those guided walks through Noctis Labyrinthus? Naah, that would take too long. What then?
Easy. You sign up with “Mars Heritage” to walk “The Opportunity Trail”! :-)
Excerpt from the Mars Heritage “Opportunity Trail” brochure…
After taking a shuttle or rover out to Opportunity’s landing site – which has been lovingly restored and repaired by the hard-working volunteers of “Mars Heritage”, Mars’ historical study and preservation group – you will be met by your fellow trekkers, a mixture of martian colonists and settlers and ‘tourists’ from Earth, the Moon and asteroid belt, and by your friendly and knowledgeable Mars Heritage guide. After a brief round of introductions and a short presentation about martian outback safety you’ll be off, walking away from Oppy’s landing stage, following in her long-since-vanished wheel tracks…
And for the next few days you will *be* Opportunity. You will follow in her tracks exactly, guided by the Mars Heritage display in your visor. You will walk up to the famous rocks she encountered, and of course there’ll be time to pose beside them to have your holograph taken; you will walk up to, roam around and then slowly go down into the craters she herself went down into, seeing for yourself exactly what she saw… You will step carefully down into Endurance crater and walk slowly up to the famous rock “Wopmay”, and only just resist the temptation to run your gloved hand over its rugged side. You will stand on the edge of Victoria Crater and peer down into its heart, smiling as you recognise the dune-rippled dust field there, which you’ve seen on all those countless thousands of images from the archives.
And at any point along the way, just by tapping a combination of numbers on your wrist pad, you will be able to make Oppy appear there with you – or at least a 3D holographic projection of her, accurate in every detail; you can, if you want to (and many do!) literally walk beside Opportunity as she trundles across Meridiani. Just imagine standing on the lip of Duck Bay and watching Opportunity rolling past you and heading down into Victoria Crater…!
It took Oppy many years to complete her trek from her landing site to the hills of Endeavour, covering less than 100m each sol, but of course it would take you only a day, walking at a brisk pace. But where would be the fun in having your adventure over with so quickly? So the Mars Heritage-guided “Opportunity Trail” takes three sols to complete, and that means two nights’ camping…!
After solset, everyone in your group will stop walking and set up your ”ents” - small, one- or two-man inflatable habs with their own air supply, specially produced and provided by Mars Heritage – that are a comfortable, if “cosy”, home for a long martian night. With your tents erected, your group will then gather around a beautiful holographic “fire” in the centre of your campsite to listen to your Mars Heritage guides’ stories of the amazing adventures of Opportunity and her sister rover. With your white spacesuit lit by flickering holographic flames, and with stars wheeling overhead and Mars’ twin moons racing across the sky, you’ll hear all about the rovers’ countless brushes with death at the hands of dust storms, low power levels, and wheel-trapping dunes, before turning in for the night…
Anyone walking the “Opportunity Trail” knows all about Oppy’s unexpected but thrilling success as a meteorite-hunter, and as you head south from Victoria you’ll see for yourself the great star-stones that the rover encountered as she roved onwards, onwards. In fact, these won’t be the real meteorites; they’re on display back at the Museum of Mars. The meteorites you and your fellow Trailers will come across out on the Meridiani plains are absolutely perfect replicas, exact copies of the originals which are far, far too valuable to just leave lying around for a greedy settler, colonist or tourist *(or Trailer!) to carry away and sell to a collector back on Earth…
Leaving “Meteorite Alley” behind you’ll walk up to Concepcion crater and see for yourself the famous “Chocolate Hills” rocks, with their bizarre, flakey covering. These are the originals, protected by unseen sensors and alarms, and fitted with microscopic trackers to prevent them from being stolen. (Note: all the craters and major features along the Trail are monitored in realtime by Mars Heritage’s cameras, just to be sure no-one attempst to interfere with these precious historic sites).
Further south, after another hour’s walk, you’ll come to the “Twin Craters” of “San Antonio”, but even your enthusiastic Mars Heritage guide will admit that there’s not much to see there, and soon you’ll be on your way again, heading south once more, into the deep, deep Meridiani desert, before eventually turning to the east – and heading towards the Hills of Endeavour…!
As the end of your trip approaches you will walk up towards the foothills of Endeavour Crater, watching its hills loom ever larger in front of you. Eventually you’ll start to climb the Hills, just as Opportunity did, following a winding, meandering track up to the summit, where you’ll stop by the life-size, crysta-diamond model of Opportunity herself and look down from the heights, gazing back across the wide open spaces of the Meridiani desert, reflecting on your journey and Opportunity’s own epic journey, all those many years ago…
Fanciful? Oh yes, guilty as charged. But impossible? No, absolutely not. I firmly believe that there will be a Museum of Mars, and a “Mars Heritage” or its equivalent one day, and I’m just as sure that people will follow an “Opportunity Trail”, just as people today follow historic trails here on Earth, to let them feel a connection with history. I just hope that that Museum of Mars puts some of my pictures and poems on display, I really like the idea of that!
Today the Mars rovers are “known” globally. They’re almost robot celebrities. Magazines, newspapers and websites in every country report on their mission, and Mars rover “fans” across the world check for new images and information updates every day. But I firmly believe that we haven’t grasped the real significance or the true importance of the Mars rovers yet. Yes, everyone recognises what a great achievement the mission is. Yes, everyone acknowledges the technical triumph of their journey. Yes, everyone is in awe of just how long they’ve survived on Mars. But as for their cultural legacy, their eventual contribution to science and their significance for the future of Mars and its settlers, well, I don’t think most people have any idea, any idea at all. Perhaps not even some of the people at NASA in charge of the rovers.
But I think I am starting to.
I wish I had a TARDIS of my own, a time machine to take me, and some companions, into the future, so I could show them how, in centuries to come, when Mars is settled, native martian children will run barefoot around the parks and gardens of the thriving settlements there. They’ll run giddy rings around their parents and around the dramatically-posed statues of the first man or woman to set foot on Mars…
And there’ll be statues of “Spirit” and “Opportunity” in those parks too, because in centuries to come the rovers will be seen as having been that important, that crucial to the conquest of Mars for Mankind. Because not only have the rovers revolutionised our scientific understanding of Mars – shown us that it was once, as we suspected and hoped, a warmer, wetter, friendlier-for-life place, and allowed us to look deep into Mars’ past – but they have opened up the eyes of the masses to just what a beautiful, dramatic, epic planet it is. They’ve allowed us to watch the Sun setting behind dark, alien mountains; see two moons racing each other across a star-scattered sky; gaze in wide-eyed wonder at dust devils whirling and swirling across vast Big Country plains. They’ve transported us all from our lush, wet, living green-and-blue world to a world of crushed strawberry-hued dust, vacuum-thin air and skin-freezing cold, where there is almost heart-stopping beauty in a tangerine-coloured, cloudless sky and in every chipped and broken and fractured stone…
Some people can’t see that, and I feel sorry for them, I really do. I’m working on them tho, through my Outreach work.
But worse, some people now think the rovers have done enough, that they’re costing too much to keep going, and that it’s now time for them to slow down, to wind down, to curtail their explorations and rove slowly into retirement.
To those people I would say this:
The rovers are the most precious, most priceless assets mankind has ever sent to Mars. Meant to last just 90 days, they are still working, almost half a dozen YEARS after landing. Or at leat Oppy is. She has working cameras to take photographs with, and an armoury of working sophisticated instruments to study Mars with. Every sol she spends there, every morning she wakes up, her electronic eyes blinking in the ruby light of a martian dawn, is a blessing, a gift, a sol to wring every last moment of science out of, another chance to find something amazing, something that could re-write the textbooks and maybe, just maybe, change the world and Mankind’s understanding of his place in the universe. To reign them in, to slow them down, to hobble them would be the most foolish act of folly the scientific world has ever known, and would be something to be ashamed of in generations to come.
How would history have turned out if someone had telegraphed Lewis and Clark and told them to “explore less”? What would the world be like if Magellan or Cook had been sent a message telling them to stop aiming for the horizon and come back home? If bureaucrats in Queen Isabella’s court had told Columbus to stop sailing halfway across the Atlantic, how fiercely and savagely would we be condemning them now?
Spirit and Opportunity are rovers. They were designed and built to drive across Mars and see and do amazing things. To ask them to do less, to ask their drivers, engineers and planners to make them do less, would be wasteful and wrong. They should drive as long as they can, rove as far as they can, push on until they run themselves into the ground, or fall apart.
And then, in years to come, when those young martians stop running around long enough to look up at the statues in the park, they’ll feel their hearts almost burst with pride at the rovers’ achievements, and not feel sad that they were abandoned, and betrayed, before their missions were complete.