Our Favorite Martians
For the scientists and engineers who drive the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars exploration is personal.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
(Page 4 of 5)
The mystique of the rovers has even touched Native American culture. Tim McCoy, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, has been on the rover team for the last four years. He’s also a citizen of the Miami tribe from the Midwest. In their Algonquian language, explains McCoy, the Miami confer “animacy” on certain beings, such as people, animals, some plants, and ome natural phenomena, such as thunder. “Anthropomorphizing is not the right word,” he says. “It’s hard to describe. Some things have a living force to them, a spirit of sorts.”The Miami elders decide what types of modern technology have animacy. Cars do. Trains don’t. “I had heard Janet Vertesi talk in a rover team meeting about the boundary in her mind between people and machines,” says McCoy. “She was sort of struggling with that. But from a Native American sense, there’s no struggle there, no apparent conflict.”
McCoy and a Miami tribesman colleague who is a linguist at Miami University of Ohio debated whether the rovers had animacy. They went to a tribal elder and described what a rover is and how it works with humans. The elder pondered the question, then proclaimed that the rovers have animacy. A group of about 20 undergraduates from theMiami tribe at the university then named the rovers “neehpikalaankwa keeyosia,” or “the red star wanderer.” “To the Miami,” says McCoy, “the wanderer performs an important task as he or she gathers useful information during wanderings and brings it back for the community.”
McCoy shared the story with the rover team.“They weren’t surprised. You really feel like this thing is an extension of you. When one of them dies, there’s going to be a tangible loss and a period of grieving.”
End-of-life questions make anyone close to the rovers uneasy. Yet with Spirit’s recent stranding, the scientists are often asked about the inevitable.
“They talk about them as geriatric,” says Vertesi. “Amnesia. Arthritis. All very human experiences. But to mention a rover death....The pressure to preserve the rovers is huge.”
John Grant is practical about the demise of the probes, but says they’re not there yet. “I know it will happen someday, but I don’t want to think about the eventual end of the mission,” he says. “With the rovers, it’s open-ended. You don’t want to let go of them.”
A stationary Spirit or Opportunity is far from dead. Instead, the rover becomes like the Phoenix lander, which, after touching down in the Martian far north in May 2008, detected snowfall and clear evidence of water ice, and made it to early November, well past its 90-day projection, before waning sunlight caused a loss of contact. Or it becomes like the two Viking landers launched in themid-1970s, which studied the chemistry, meteorology, seismology, and magnetism of their Martian environments while searching for signs of microbial life, and lasted almost 10 years combined. Phoenix and Viking never budged from their landing spots. Spirit could be very valuable, say, as a climate station for months to come. “There’s a whole list of geodynamic measurements that we can use that you need a stationary vehicle [for], to track the radio signals to explore the geodynamics of Mars,” says JPL rover project manager John Callas. “And we also have an ability to do a crude seismometry with the rover. So those are both long-term objectives, new things that the rover can do.” Bottom line: It’s unthinkable that NASA would abandon a half-billion-dollar rover with almost all systems working just because it can’t rove.
So while Spirit continues to worry the team, Opportunity has a good chance of surviving another Martian winter as it rolls south toward Endeavour Crater, its biggest crater yet. It will need more than one Earth year to get there. When the fateful day comes and the Mars rovers cease to transmit, perhaps the JPL folks will be emotionally prepared, and will focus on Earthly companions: cars, pets.