On Wednesday NASA announced that they're stopping their efforts to contact the now-silent Mars rover Spirit and declaring that the plucky little rover's mission is completed. But what a wild and amazing trip its been; intended to travel about a hundred yards over a three month time period, Spirit lasted seven years, travelled not quite five miles, learning about Mars' geology by direct observation.
Even when bits started failing, Spirit not only managed to do its job, it made a series of important discoveries that uncovered Mars' surprisingly watery past. Meanwhile, astonishingly, Spirit's fellow robot Opportunity is still trucking along. The two rovers are a beautiful example of just how handy robots can be, particularly for those environments that are especially hostile or remote. Next up for Mars will be Curiosity AKA the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to launch later this year and designed to investigate Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. We've looked at the rocks, now we get to search for the bugs.
Underwater robots have explored the wreck of the Titanic and provided a means to examine the leaking wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon. Robots have been sent into the Fukushima nuclear power plant complex, dispose of bombs, and participate in earthquake rescue and recovery efforts. Why? Because as much as we sometimes anthropomorphize robots, it's not like they care if they're sent into a dangerous, poisonous, or highly radioactive environment. They are useful, expendable, and (scary robots-gone-wild movie scenarios aside) they're reliable.
I'm of two minds about manned missions to Mars. On the one hand, the robots sent to explore Mars have done a truly excellent job; we don't have to worry about keeping them healthy, fed, and breathing on the way out; and we don't have to worry about getting them home safely. On the other hand, there are very large obstacles to successfully transporting humans to Mars and back (or even adopting a Red Mars approach and having the humans land and stay) but we would learn an awful lot from the attempt. In the meantime, I shall mourn Spirit, cheer on Opportunity, and wait eagerly for Curiosity.