It’s been a year and a half since I’ve mentioned Spirit and Opportunity, two mechanical rovers that celebrate their sixth anniversary on Mars this month.

Six years — imagine that. When launched, NASA scientists hoped the rovers would hold up for three months in the harsh conditions of the cold and dusty Martian landscape — but six years later, both are still sending new findings back to earth.

The solar-powered rovers have proven to be an engineering marvel, so durable that NASA has had to scramble more than once to get funding renewed for a project that no one thought could last for so long — but when you’ve got really smart robots loaded with scientific equipment sitting on another planet, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t continue to explore.

Thus far, the rovers, sent to different parts of the planet, have traveled for miles. They have climbed hills taller than the Statue of Liberty, and crawled through craters to explore layers of the crusty surface. They have drilled into rocks and analyzed their mineral composition, while keeping an eye on the weather and even photographing a Martian dust devil. They’ve found convincing evidence that water was once abundant on the red planet’s surface, and can still be found.

After six years, the rovers aren’t as healthy as they once were. Spirit (right) has been forced to drive backwards since 2006, when one of its six wheels stopped functioning. For the past several months, it’s been stuck in a sandy spot on the edge of a small crater. Another wheel has quit working, but the little rover that could is still making scientific discoveries.

I don’t know how much longer the rovers will continue their amazing run, but I’ll keep a hot link to their website on my toolbar for as long as they do. They remind me of the unsung heroes that make churches work: the lady who’s worked in the nursery so long that babies she once kept are now bringing their grandchildren to her, or the man who volunteered 40 years ago to stay behind to turn off the lights, adjust the thermostats, and lock up the building — and is still doing it. 

Every church has its faithful members who cook the fellowship breakfast and count the money and teach the senior adult Sunday School class — enduring folk who get little recognition but keep on keeping on. You know who those people are. I hope you’ll send them a note this week, or give them a hug, and thank them for making the church wheels keep on turning.

[All images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech]

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