With the global economy struggling, political candidates wrangling, and an unhappy war muddling along with no end in sight, we have to celebrate successes where we can find them. That’s one of the reasons I have home pages for the Mars Exploration Rover mission, the Cassini-Huygens Saturn mission, and the Mercury Messenger mission all bookmarked on my Firefox browser’s toolbar.
And talk about success. While on a close-in fly-by preparatory to a future orbital mission, The Mercury Messenger recently snapped hundreds of high-resolution photos of a side of Mercury that had not previously been seen. Three and a half years after entering Saturn’s orbit, America’s Cassini orbiter routinely sends back staggeringly beautiful and scientifically revealing images and data on Saturn and its moons. In January 2005, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, which was part of a joint venture with NASA, successfully penetrated the thick atmosphere of Titan, an earth-sized moon, and reached the surface.
The real tough guys of space travel, however, are the solar-powered, six-wheeled iMars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which celebrated their fourth anniversary on Mars this month: Spirit landed safely on Jan. 3, 2004, and Opportunity touched down on the opposite side of the planet Jan. 25. Engineers hoped the rovers would last for 90 days under the harsh conditions on Mars — but both have gone way past their warranties, providing mountains more data than ever envisioned.
That’s some engineering.
Funding to continue doing science through the Mars mission was recently extended for the fifth time, in hopes of keeping the rovers roving through 2009, if they continue to hold up. Thus far, Spirit has traveled more than 4.5 miles and returned more than 100,000 images. Opportunity has driven more than seven miles while returning a similar number of images. Together, the rovers have discovered abundant evidence of water, studied the planet’s geological history, and even found metallic meteorites on the surface.
With so many things going badly, it’s good to celebrate some things that are going right, so here’s a big tip of the hat to NASA — and a prayer that next week’s “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant” will also surpass expectations in its mission to build unity among Baptists by rallying around Jesus’ own mission statement of concern for the downtrodden.