Friday, September 24, 2004

Spirit and Opportunity to Keep Exploring

Mars rovers' mission extended

"'Although Spirit and Opportunity are well past warranty, they are showing few signs of wearing out,' project manager Jim Erickson said in a statement. 'We really don't know how long they will keep working, whether days or months. We will do our best to continue getting the maximum possible benefit from these great national resources.'"

While this is certainly good news, I personally find it doubtful that the Mars Exploration Rovers will tell us anything essentially new or unexpected about the Martian surface.

Not that they weren't presented with the opportunity; almost immediately after landing, the Spirit rover, still atop its platform, photographed an intriguing surface feature MER scientists termed the "Magic Carpet." There was good reason to suspect the Magic Carpet owed its unusual appearance to liquid water just beneath the Martian surface's dusty red veneer.

Although admittedly baffled, JPL steered clear of the Magic Carpet. This "anomaly avoidance" policy has continued throughout the rovers' missions. Rocks are fair game for study while structures insinuating the existence of water or life (past or present) are studiously circumvented (literally and otherwise).

With the discovery of methane (and probable ammonia) in Mars' atmosphere, JPL's aversion to conducting life science on Mars becomes increasingly untenable. A six-month extended mission could be what it takes for JPL to treat its adopted planet with the fair-mindedness it deserves.

In the meantime, evidence of atmospheric "biomarkers" rages. The official announcement of life on the Red Planet may well be imminent, hastened by the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission.