It happens like this every time. I’m moist with anticipation, waiting for the latest eye candy from Mars. I’ve stayed up all night, monitoring forums, waiting for the photos to be beamed back. What’s the rover going to see when it reaches the ridge? What untold vista, virgin to both electronic and biological eye, is about to be revealed Wait, wait, here it comes…and, oh, oh, look. It’s another frickin’ red plain with a few boulders. Humph.
I can’t help it. I guess I’m holding out for an era-defining panorama full of little green men. Time and again, it’s like the famous space opera: the chances of anything (interesting) coming from Mars are a million to one.
Fortunately, not everyone is as jaded and curmudgeonly as me. A healthy community of (mostly) amateur enthusiasts has been putting the ace back into space, respinning original data into something more exciting to the average human. And the defining work of these interplanetary interpreters came with our six-wheeled friends on Mars.
Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Martian rovers, now almost universally described as ‘plucky’, are still going strong, despite being many times past their use-by date. Since landing on the red planet in January 2004, the two robots have traveled a combined half marathon, reeling in many gigabytes of data and tens of thousands of images.
A few months back now, Opportunity reached the sprawling Victoria Crater, whose ancient, exposed layers offer enough research material for several missions. But the official images, devoid of any features that show us just how big the thing is, made it hard for many folk, the media included, to work up much passion.
Not so the fan club. The twin rovers have quite an online following, with several different amateur forums around the internet. And, like all enthusiastic amateurs, they occasionally go one better than the professionals. Over the past few years, they’ve been generating daily progress maps, stitching together colorful panoramas and adding a whole dimension to the missions that’s absent from official sources.
James Canvin of Sydney, one of the many regular contributors to this community, sums up this amazing work , which is little noticed by the wider world.
“Nowhere else have I seen scientific, engineering, geologic, cartographic, writing, artistic, poetic, musical, programming, data processing and other talents brought together so effortlessly as they have been by the amateur community following the rovers.”
James and others like him have made impressive contributions to the humanization of Mars. They’ve put together images such as the one above, showing Sydney Harbor Bridge neatly spanning Victoria Crater. Yes, it’s rather whimsical. But it also offers an immediate sense of scale that makes the whole mission interesting once again. Opportunity suddenly shifts from the lip of another dusty hole of indeterminate size, to the precipice of a yawning, village-sized crater. If you ask me, Photoshop and its users are the unsung heroes of this new space age.
Another aficionado is Stuart Atkinson, from England’s Lake District. He too works wonders with imagery, and has even contributed a bank of poetry inspired by the rover missions. I asked him for the one thing that astounds him most about the like-minded Mars addicts he’s met online:
“[It’s] the co-operation of people all across the world, advising each other, helping each other out - and, of course, getting colorized, stitched pictures “out there” often mere minutes - and I do mean minutes - after the raw black and white images have been posted on NASA and other websites.”
The rovers have far surpassed their creators’ expectations. And their names - Opportunity and Spirit – double as values, shared by those who watch with awe back here on Earth. But this is only a beginning. Many more planetary probes, Martian and otherwise, are imminent. In less than three years, Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory, a much more sophisticated rover, will launch to the red planet. And we can be sure the passionate online followers will be there too, giving the mission that human touch. Meanwhile, Stuart Atkinson paints a romantic picture of the current rovers’ futures:
“To just keep going, and going, visiting and photographing new landscape after new landscape… and eventually meet, at the landing site of the Mars Science Laboratory, to allow that rover to take a picture of the two MER rovers standing together proudly on Mars, side by side, battered, dented and lame, their bodies covered with orange and cinnamon-hued Martian dust, lit by that shrunken Sun...”
When put like that, it almost brings a tear to the eye. Perhaps I’m not as jaded and curmudgeonly as I thought.