By John Herrman
Posting in Energy
Two American spacecraft meet, two-hundred million miles away.
Without a guide, that dot would be easy to miss amidst the cracks, shadows and rocks scattered around the Martian surface. And even if you do spot it from this elevated vantage point, that unusually dark speck on the southeast rim of the Santa Maria Crater could be anything--a rock, a shadow, a photographic artifact left by the aggressive colorization process applied to the photo. But it's not a rock, or a digital glitch. It's a piece of man-made machinery.
That speck is none other than the Opportunity rover, which has been hobbling around the Martian surface since 2004. (For scale, that crater is about 90 meters wide.) For a few months now, the Opportunity has been surveying this site, analyzing nearby soil and returning stunning images like this one:
For a full-size version, click here.
But what about the other craft, the one behind the lens? That's the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which celebrates its fifth year in orbit today, on March 10th. During the last half-decade, the orbiter has returned 131 terabits of data to Earth, mostly in the form of over 70,000 images like the one above. In more familiar terms, that's somewhere around 17,000 gigabytes.
Meetings like this are hardly unprecedented, given that the satellite completes another full Martian orbit every one and a half Earth days. But it's worth considering this brief encounter, which took place far, far beyond where any human has visited, as it strikes a resonant chord of wonder at a time when NASA's future--in particular, the continuation of interplanetary missions like the ones that led up to this stunning photograph--is, to put it lightly, highly uncertain.
Source images courtesy of NASA; photo composite by SmartPlanet; hat tip to MSNBC.
Mar 10, 2011
Had Lyndon Johnston listened to Werner von Braun in 1966, not only would there have been four colonies on the moon by now but there'd have been at least 3 colonies on Mars, the oldest of which would be approaching it's 35 th year. Blame Senator Walter Proxmire that that never took place: It was he who destroyed the Apollo Program, right when it had begun to bring huge benefits in both exploration and technology. In succeeding in killing-off Apollo, Proxmire succeeded in dooming the next 30 odd years in space to be wasted in useless Low Earth Orbit Make-work missions, via the Shuttle, the only surviving man- rated NASA space vehicle. No true exploratory work has been done my humans in space since Apollo, nor could it be done now. Proxmire even had the machinery that made Apollo possible destroyed: calling that act "A Triumph of Democracy". It is, literally, a technical impossibility to produce an Apollo craft today, and the bastard stepchild that was Ares was worse. As for the Shuttle, it was, though NASA's only choice, still a bad choice. The X33 Delta should have led to the Shuttle being replaced. But, Like NERVA before it, X33 was killed by idiotically venal politicians who, unlike JFK or Werner von Braun, never had the intelligence to see beyond their careers or voting blocs. TO return to the Moon, even IF there was the political willpower to do so will cost 130 years. That long, before someone like JFK has the courage to say "Achieve this, America." That long, because the machinery to build the spacecraft does not exist, that long, because the suitable craft itself does not exist. That long, because the funding does not exist. That long, because the American public no-longer believe's in it's Nation, a nation that once proudly led the world.
The moon. Oh yeah, the moon. A bit closer and plenty of research to do and resources to consider there. Why is Mars and some asteroid in the picture before we really put our stamp on our satellite? Robots will do fine on the longer missions for now and don't have to make a return trip. The space shuttles fulfilled their mission and near earth research stations should still be developed. A new generation of shuttles should be in our future. It should not just be about stepping foot on another planet but making the whole effort to learn and explore.
Given our present course, there is little doubt that future events will force the human race to combine efforts to delve into the depths of space simply to survive. That's when we'll wish that we had devoted more capital to its exploration and the wealth of resources that it offers. Or, maybe President Obama will have something better in his "change" bag that'll negate that need. NOT!!!
It is too bad that the space program was scaled down after the moon race was over. Mankind may have been a lot different today if we had then turned our eyes to Mars.