Saturday, April 12, 2014

Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving across Mars

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through September 14, 2014

As much as I don't care for the Air and Space Museum generally, I have seen some wonderful exhibits here.  They've been the ones that feature photographs; there was one about the planets that was phenomenal, and the one of the underside of jets was really interesting as well.  This is another in that vein: it's photographs sent back by the two Rovers that were sent to Mars ten years ago.

The original goal was for them to spend a few months and travel about one kilometer.  Instead they've traveled long distances and although Spirit gave up the ghost after six years, Opportunity is still going strong.  For all that you hear about government waste and cost overruns, this program has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams and continues to provide useful information about our neighboring planet.

Although Mars is close to us as far as outer space is concerned, it takes several months to get there from Earth.  The Rovers were sent to Mars to obtain information from soil and rocks, so that scientists could determine if there had ever been water on the planet.  The idea is that if there was once water, the planet could have been inhabitable.  My question is: inhabitable by whom?  I'm pretty sure there's no air on Mars, so it couldn't have been humans.  Plus, at night, Mars has temperatures of about -80 degrees, not exactly comfortable.  I assume we're talking about microbes of some sort, not "little green men."

The Rovers have sent back lots of information, as well as wonderful pictures of Mars.  It's completely serendipitous, the pictures the little gadgets send, so it's a lot like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, "You never know what you're going to get."  Some of the photos look like they could have been taken on Earth, albeit in a desert, rather than in downtown Manhattan.  There are pictures of lovely sunsets that have a familiar look to them, not alien at all.  As the wall notes said, "Other worlds can seem eerily familiar."  I didn't view it as eerie, so much as comforting; it's certainly different than my usual environment, but not incomprehensible.

It struck me, looking at the photos with the Rovers' tracks on the sand, that we humans are now leaving our traces on other planets, in addition to completely transforming Earth.  I think my favorite of all the pictures was one called "Abstract Dunes."  It's of sand dunes, with a beautiful, blue-ish light on them.

Verdict: If I enjoy an exhibit at Air and Space, despite the crowds, you know it's worth seeing!

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