Friday, May 25, 2012

A golden Opportunity

Wow! After a winter's sleep, the Martian rover Opportunity is awake and on the move, ready to do science for another season.

With its now defunct sister rover, Spirit, Opportunity bounced down on the Martian surface (on opposite sides of the planet) in January 2004. The goal before landing was for each rover to travel about 1 kilometer. Opportunity has now cruised around for more than 34 kilometers, doing geology as it goes and beaming photos back to Earth. It is about the size of a dining room table.

We have lived with space exploration for so long that we tend to take this stuff for granted. Which is why I pinch myself now and then and remind myself just what a spectacular accomplishment this is.

Imagine the Earth as a grape and Mars as a cranberry. At their closest (both planets lined up on one side of the Sun) they are about as far apart as the length of a football field. But of course they are not always so close together; the planets orbit the Sun at different speeds. Opportunity's long journey looping out to the Red Planet took half a year. And landed on a dime.

We all remember when the rover got stuck in Martian sand, and had to painstakingly claw its way out. We held our breath, and crossed our finger for its chances. The little engine that could, could.

All those marvelous pictures of Martian landscapes, and close-ups of Martian rocks. And the folks at NASA nursing their child along, whispering in its ear across tens of millions of miles -- when to stop, when to go, when to do a bit of science.

Breathtaking stuff, this. Go Opportunity. Go.