Monday, May 26, 2008

Phoenix Has Landed

Following its long cruise and harrowing Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL), NASA's Phoenix lander has touched down on the vast northern plains of Mars. It is equipped to search for water ice in the shallow subsurface of what may in the distant past have been a Martian seabed, and to test for the constituents of life itself.

As is usually the case when these missions achieve their objectives, the chief feelings I experience (after I'm done bouncing up and down in my chair in a child-like geekgasm of glee) are awe and pride. The sheer complexity involved in getting a spacecraft from the surface of the Earth, across millions of miles of space, and nailing a precise entry into the atmosphere of another planet --itself hurtling through space at very high speed-- then shedding the tremendous kinetic energy of its launch and cruise phases, and bringing it to rest in a usable condition on that planet's is simply breathtaking.

The ingenuity of the human species, the spirit of inquiry and exploration has once again enabled us to place a robotic avatar of our consciousness on the surface of another world. This is not a concept that ever gets old for me. Light-minutes away from where we sit right now, a machine sits in the thin whispery winds of the Martian atmosphere, bathed in the glow of a visibly-smaller sun, its three broad footpads sunken into the sand and gravel of a world on which no human has ever (yet!) walked. It is both a humbling and an exalting thought.

I have avidly followed the progress of the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, since they bounced to the surface of Mars, over four years ago. Two images from those rovers (here and here) occupy a place on my office wall. I pore over the true-color images and often imagine what it would be like to be standing behind the rovers as they capture them (usually editing out the part about the cramped, smelly, terrifyingly necessary pressure suit I would perforce be wearing at the time). Indeed, I think I've been spoiled by the ever-changing landscapes those mobile probes have afforded, and it's going to be hard to adjust to a fixed platform again. Small price to pay for the wealth of data which Phoenix stands to provide.

I live in hope that I will last long enough to see humans live and work off-planet. Mars is about as good as it gets in the neighborhood of old Sol for such protracted excursions, and ultimately for colonization. With all of the other topics to which these pages are usually devoted, it should scarcely surprise that I would be very enthusiastically in favor of not having all of humanity's eggs in one basket. If nothing else, the wealth of ideas which would at first be the chief export of any off-world colony would enrich the species immeasurably (can you imagine a fresher perspective?). But the prospect of some natural or human-made calamity erasing all that there ever had been or would be of humanity is simply too appalling to contemplate. Larry Niven once said that "the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right." Bit harsh, but basically says it.

So, when I hear of another successful mission to deepen our understanding of the Red Planet, my hope-meter twitches ever so slightly in the right direction. With many more missions in the offing, these promise to be "days of miracles and wonder" indeed.

Well-met, Phoenix. May you have a pleasant and productive stay.


Texas Travelers said...

Great post. Well thought out and delivered. I too, salute Phoenix.
I just hope funding for Spirit and Rover is not cut off as suggested. Let them die a natural death in honor as they have done great work (far more then expected).

Have a great week,

Noocyte said...

Thanks, Tex, for the kind words!

Last I heard, our rovers' allowances were safe for the time being. I agree that it would be criminal to pull the plug while they're still plugging away. For what it's worth, I just don't see that happening, unless they get really decrepit and we've got a sexier probe on Mars than Phoenix (like say the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to launch in Fall, 2009). The protest would be heard on Phobos, I expect.

Anyway, thanks for reading!