Thirteen years ago an incredible adventure – and an incredible journey – began on Mars, as the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” fell out of a salmon pink sky and bounced to a standstill on the surface of the Red Planet.
I watched it happen – not on TV but online, sitting in front of my PC monitor, watching a live NASA TV broadcast on a tiny RealPlayer screen. I was on chirruping dial-up in those days – “broadband” was still thought of as some kind of sorcery or wizardry – so the picture kept stopping and buffering, or, worse, shattering altogether in a kaleidescopic haze of pixels and static. But I was able to follow what was going on, and it was obvious to me and everyone watching when the rover was down safely on Barsoom because the control room exploded with joy, engineers and scientists leaping into the air, grabbing each other, patting backs, hugging, punching the air.
And then when the first images appeared – far sooner than we had been expecting – well, then it went really crazy…
As a martian in exile and a British space enthusiast it was an enormous relief and a joy to have a working space probe on the planet’s surface; a week or so earlier the Beagle 2 lander had failed to phone home after landing on Mars, so to sit there and know that we were going to be able to explore Mars through Spirit’s eyes was a fantastic feeling.
Not that Spirit was going to see much, or get very far. The expectation was that before the harsh martian environment killed her, Spirit might just drive up to a kilometre on Mars, and survive as long as 90 sols, or martian days…
Of course, Spirit had other ideas. And before her roving ended – prematurely – on May 1st 2009 she had travelled over 7km across Mars, on an incredible journey that took her across a vast dusty desert on an ancient crater’s floor, up a range of hills and down their other side and past a stunningly beautiful “pool” of glittering black dust blown into ebony crests and waves by the Red Planet’s softly sighing winds.
Every sol Spirit sent back new, stunning images. and as she rolled over one horizon after another it seemed that nothing could stop her.
After spending months exploring a flat cap of layered rock dubbed “Homeplate”, like R2D2 rolling down that canyon on Tattooine, Spirit trundled down an innocent-looking path en-route to “Von Braun”, a rock-covered mound. What she had no way of knowing was that Mars had laid a trap for her, and as her wheel rolled over a small crater, filled with dust, she sank into it.
And, despite valiant efforts by amazing people back on Earth to find a way to free her, there she stayed, trapped like a baby mammoth in a tar pit. On March 22nd 2010 Spirit sent her final message back to Earth – and then fell silent, never to be heard from again. Her mission was over.
Many of us who followed Spirit’s incredible journey across Mars – and there were many, many thousands of us who checked her progress every day, waking up and looking at her latest images before we had even had our first cup of tea, or were properly awake – still feel her loss like an open wound. Of course, even as we celebrated Spirit’s successful landing on that magical January day in 2004 we all knew the sol would come when she ended her roving, but we thought she would succumb to a technical failure of some kind – a stuck wheel, a software failure, a computer glitch, something like that. So to have her taken out in such a sneaky, underhand way hurt… it really hurt. It was wrong, just wrong. She should have gone on to explore Von Braun, damnit, and then gone further still, to discover – well, we’ll never know what she would have discovered.
I wrote this astro-poem to mark/celebrate/mourn Spirit’s passing, after NASA released a remarkable image of the rover taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mars…
Above: a crop from a colourised image I made using the image taken by the HiRISE camera
Spirit’s sister, “Opportunity”, which landed on Mars a couple of weeks after Spirit, is still roving. Having survived dust storms, technical faults, computer spasms and everything else Mars could throw at her, as she begins her 13th (terrestrial) year on Mars she is now exploring the high rim of an ancient crater, and shows no signs of stopping or even slowing down. We “rover huggers” are all immensely proud of her, and of the amazing men and women who continue to guide her across Mars.
In our quiet moments, and on anniversary days like this, we remember Spirit, the rover which had to fight for every kilometer she drove, and brought Mars to life for the generation of armchair astronauts too old to remember the heady days of the Viking missions, and too young to expect to be around when the first crewed expeditions set off for Barsoom. And on some mission after that, who knows how any years from now, people will fly out to Homeplate, land beside it, and go over to where Spirit stands, coated in a layer of dust, looking like a statue. They’ll dust her off a little, then reverently carry her back into their shuttle, to fly her back to the Museum at their colony. And there, after being lovingly cleaned and restored, she’ll be put on display for everyone to see. Historians from Earth will jostle at the barriers with tall, pale-skinned native martian kids for the best view of the famous robot “Spirit”, and they’ll all shake their heads in wonder as they see just how small, how fragile-looking but noble the ancient rover looks.
But that’s for the future. Right now, as you read this, Spirit stands silent and still on Mars, covered with dust and sparkling crystals of ice. She could have done so much more if she’d been given the chance. Her adventure ended far too early.
Sleep well, Spirit. It might take us a while to get there, but we’re coming for you.