Bar the shuttle there’s only been one mission in recent memory that has managed to capture the attention and imagination of nearly the entire world. That mission is the Mars Exploration Rovers, a pair of plucky little explorers that touched down on Mars almost 7 years ago today beginning a truly epic journey that lasted well past their expected lifetime. They also hold the crown of being conceived, built, launched and spending the better part of a decade on one of our closest neighbours in the universe in the time that it has taken Duke Nukem Forever to be developed. Their impact on the world and our understanding of the universe cannot be understated and it is with a sadden heart that I bring you this news today.
Even though they were, for all intents and purposes, identical twins Spirit always had the hardest time on our red sister. For the first couple years they were both chugging along quite well but in mid March 2006 Spirit’s front right wheel locked up and failed to respond. This meant that for most of its life Spirit was driving around backwards, dragging the dead wheel behind it. It was both a blessing and a curse to the little rover as the dragging meant it could image the crevices it was leaving behind, providing some insight that we weren’t expecting. There was a brief moment of excitement when the wheel began to respond again, but it soon stopped responding shortly after. The rear right wheel also suffered a similar fate several years later.
Then in 2009 Spirit became stuck in a soft patch of Mars soil. At the time it didn’t seem like a big of a deal, they’d been in similar situations before with both rovers and managed to free them successfully, but this one presented some major challenges. The soil was an insidious creation of mostly iron sulfate which has poor cohesion and is like quick sand to the rover’s wheels. NASA then spent 9 months testing various scenarios on earth in a desperate attempt to free the craft before the harsh martian winter before giving up and declaring Spirit a stationary research station.
With the rover stuck in the soil it was unable to orient its solar panels to a favourable angle in order to generate enough electricity to keep its components warm during Mars’ winter. This meant that once that time came it was likely that the rover’s electronics would be subjected to temperatures far below what it was designed to handle, likely killing it in the process. It’s the same problem that faced the Phoenix Lander and the unfortunate truth is that it didn’t survive the winter. Spirit went dark on March 22, 2010 and all attempts to contact it since then have been met silence. This means that the rover is no longer functioning, frozen in its final resting place.
Spirit may no longer be communicating with us but its mission lives on in its twin, Opportunity, and it’s future incarnation in the Mars Science Laboratory called Curiosity. There’s also the very real possibility that SpaceX will be launching a mission to Mars in the near future and that gives us the very real possibility that us humans could be meeting up with our robotic creations much sooner than we think. So while writing this article brought a tear to my eye I know that Spirit won’t be alone in the Martian soil for long and we’ll be seeing it again very soon.
So long Spirit.
4. That’s the number of times I hit the snooze button this morning. The bed in the hotel was so beautifully comfortable that the prospect of leaving it was more than I was willing to bear. Still I had set the alarm for a reason: I had an important task to accomplish today and it had a start time, 10:00am. The alarm dutifully went off at 9am but was slammed into silence multiple times so that I could enjoy just a few more sweet moments sprawled out under the covers. The enormity of the task I had set myself soon began to weigh on me however and I pulled myself out of bed to get ready for this monumental task.
I was going to pick up my first American rental car.
Usually this wouldn’t be much of a big deal but since I’d never driven a car in a country that drives on the wrong side of the road (even though the majority of the world does so) I was on tenterhooks as to how I would cope with it. I tried to soothe myself with some facts like the one that many countries have completely switched from one side to the other with no ill effects, even on the day of the switch. Still those first few moments when I sat in my shiny red Toyota Yaris had me scrambling to figure out which way was up, with blinkers and window wipers going crazy as I tried to gain control over my 68hp beast.
The following couple hours of driving were strikingly uneventful as I drove towards my chosen destination the Florida mall. This was due, in whole, to the fact that I got completely and hopelessly lost for those two hours. It wasn’t for the fact I didn’t know where I was going, I had looked it up before I went. No it was more due to the fact that I had no idea how to interpret 90% of the road signs and missing the other 10%. Thanks to the plentiful McDonalds restaurants that spotted the highway I was able to purloin free wifi Internet to help guide me on my way to the Florida Mall. I arrived there around lunch time and set about hunting down the places I could do the following things:
The first task was relatively easy, despite my tendency to be completely disinterested in most fast food. I eventually found a place that had a decent chicken salad and a juice bar that served up a mean fruit cocktail. Once I was flush with energy from consuming all that I went onto a shoe store called Sketches which I had seen multiple times before in other places. I managed to find two pairs of shoes that I thought were pretty decent and they had a sale going on so I grabbed both of them:
Getting my online self mobile proved to be a little more difficult however. After searching most of the store I couldn’t find anyone that sold AT&T, the only cell provider I knew would support my iPhone with 3G. As it turns out Radioshack stocks them so I hunted down one of their resellers. I had done some research prior to leaving that said all I needed to do was to buy the cheapest handset I could find and then rip the sim out of it and stick it in my phone. It made sense to this former phone salesman so I scored myself a brand new Samsung A107 for a cool $20 (including $15 credit), plus another $15 for credit (required for activation, apparently). After spending 10 minutes with the salesman getting it activated I headed off for the trip back home. On the way I, of course, got myself lost and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to switch out the sim and get the maps working.
As it turns out not only are the phones locked to the AT&T network they also lock the sim to the phone itself. After wrangling with my iPhone to get the new sim in it greeted me with a No Service error and refused to work. That, my friends, was $40 down the toilet and a couple quick Google searches confirmed that AT&T had been doing this for about a year. So much for that plan then. I’m not sure if I’ll bother trying to get an American sim now, it might just be worth grabbing a cheap-o GPS unit like my friend Nick did on his jaunt over a couple months back. That’s basically all I’d need it for anyway (and my next car apparently comes with one for free).
After dealing with my fail I managed to get myself back to the hotel and worked off the aggression with a good workout. I then had dinner at one of the local restaurants where the food was palatable, but nothing to write home about. I took this opportunity to sample one of the local beers, this one being a Sam Adams Octoberfest:
It was a decent brew, easily comparable to some of the more premium Australian lagers. I’ve become more of an Ale man over the past couple years of refining my beer palate so there wasn’t much to write home about this one but it was a decent accompaniment to my meal of skewered beef and roasted vegetables. Hopefully I’ll be able to indulge my inner beer fanatic a bit more when I’m down in Miami as I’ve read that there are some very good restaurants down there.
Casting off the exhaustion of yesterday was a good feeling and whilst my day was filled with fail it still felt good to get out and about around Florida. Tomorrow the real fun begins as I say goodbye to my plucky Yaris and trade up for a more manly set of wheels: a Z06 Corvette. I’ll also be upgrading my hotel from the Hyatt Regency to the Viceroy in Miami and by all accounts it looks to be one heck of a step up. I’m looking forward to living a little bit of the highlife down there as my suit has been aching to get out of the cramped confines of my suitcase. The heat here however has been quite intense so it will probably be a night only affair. Still with the reputation Miami’s night life has I don’t think I’ll be out of place late a night, seeking a classy encounter 🙂