Space Robots Outlasting Their Missions

After decades in space, three intrepid robot explorers seem to have finally reached the end of their lives after living well beyond their original goals. No accident, since scientists plan their missions that way. Of the three, the Mars Rover, Opportunity, has been driving around on Mars for nearly 15 years on a mission meant to last 90 days. The planet hunting Kepler Space Telescope, a four-year mission launched in 2009, was extended to nine years thanks to clever planning, and the Dawn mission to both an asteroid and a dwarf planet lasted 11 years after its mission was extended a couple of times. Not surprising, exploring deep space is expensive, especially with dwindling budgets, so scientists often only ask for funding for short-duration missions. But the robots have to be made tough to survive the harsh environment of space, which means they are usually capable of doing much more than the originally stated goal. And the scientists do plan for much more, they just keep quiet about it until the mission is underway. And if they’re still working past the mission, the scientists just ask for more money to extend the mission. And isn’t it too bad our cars don’t last longer than expected?

Note: In the case of the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit, which landed on Mars in 2004, their primary 90-day mission was accomplished with ease, after which the scientists said the spacecraft are still running perfectly, so could they keep them going? That secured them the extra funding to continue, which ended up going far beyond anyone’s expectations. Spirit lasted until 2010 and Opportunity fell silent last June when a dust storm swept over the entire planet and scientists have been unable to make contact with it since. The rovers didn’t die because of mechanical problems. Spirit got stuck in soft sand and Opportunity’s solar panels are so covered in dust, they can’t absorb enough sunlight to keep the batteries charged. The absolute record-holders for extended warranty missions are the twin Voyagers, which left Earth in 1977 with the goal of passing by the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 ended up continuing on to Uranus and Neptune. And now both of spacecraft are leaving the solar system entirely, still sending back information about interstellar space more than 40 years later. Of course it is always a bittersweet moment when they come to the end of their lives, falling silent on an alien world or drifting endlessly through space, but when they do, it is always with an enormous sense of pride that so much has been accomplished with so little.

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Posted in All Stories, Annoucer Blogs, Jeff

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