Musings: From Houston, with Love

By Krishna Pamidi

Grappling with the Opportunity of a lifetime

 
 
Illustration by  Amy Nakamura .

Illustration by Amy Nakamura.

My battery is dying and it’s getting dark”.

Opportunity

2004-2019

Since I was a young boy, I have always enjoyed looking up at the sky at the millions of mesmerizing and bright stars. Looking up at the sky was a way for me to relax as a child and escape reality. It made me think of things that boggled my seven-year-old mind. One thing that would always baffle me was the existence of a moon. This big, jelly doughnut-looking thing appears so close, yet it is so far that it took a couple of astronauts many months to simply land on it and walk. How monumental a feat.

Humanity is always aiming to be at the forefront, always trying to bite off more than we can chew with absolutely no regrets. Grit is in the DNA of Homo sapiens and with that, we have attempted to look into the heavens and worlds beyond our own and this has led us to make otherworldly discoveries too.

Water on mars and rocks on moon? Cosmic dust and black holes? All of these seem inexplicable, but are very much existent, and we are ever in chase of these magnificent natural phenomena.

However, this great nature of ours, this great persistence comes with heavy costs. On February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day, while the world was preoccupied with the anticipation of celebrating love, there were a few men and women with tears in their eyes over at NASA. That was the day, when NASA came out with the news of the official death of its Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity. It was more a eulogy than a press release.

An Opportunity of a lifetime

In our hunt for knowledge, we build magnificent machines that allow us to look beyond our own beautiful skies. Machines that are capable of doing incredible things a few million miles from home, machines which keep our dreams alive! But in that case, is that all they are? Just machines? I argue that they aren’t, because if Opportunity was just a machine, then thousands of people wouldn’t lament over its demise.

Opportunity’s mission, was to collect pictures and data regarding the terrain and topography of the red planet and it succeeded. The little satellite, which wasn’t supposed to last longer than 90 days, kept acquiring data for the better part of a decade and a half and it helped us see into Mars. Unearthing (or Un-Mars-ing, in this case!) little blueberries, great craters, volcanic rocks and hot geysers, Opportunity helped us discover so much dynamism that made headlines for years on end.

And then it happened.

In the summer of 2017, it was business as usual for the rover when it was caught off guard by a heavy Martian sandstorm that lasted for about a week. The storm, one of the worst in decades, “clogged the sky and covered Opportunity’s solar panels.” The ground team had predicted the sandstorm, but it could not accurately predict the scale of the storm, which led to the rover getting caught in the cross winds. After the dust settled and the ground team waited for Opportunity to confirm its position, there was an eerie silence inside the room as they kept sending commands to wake up the little satellite. What happened is that the dust was still laying heavy on top of the solar panels, from which the rover charges its batteries. With no sun for a week and a pile of sand on top of the panels, it is understandably difficult to wake up the rover.

However, this predicament should not have lasted for more than a couple of weeks, by which time Mars winds and solar winds should have blown off the sand on the panels. But it had been close to over six months and NASA was trying profusely at this point to send an array of wake-up commands to the rover to see if it would accept any of them. Songs like, I will Survive by Gloria Gaynor and Life on Mars by David Bowie were sent along with wake up-commands but all in vain, since the desperate anticipation was met only with silence from the transponder.

I know that we shouldn’t project human traits onto machinery but as Scott Simon of NPR says,

“ If you spend a lot of time with a mechanism, talk to it, wait to hear from it and worry about it, even scientists begin to see personality in machinery.”

Scientists began to call the rover “Oppy”, further deepening a bond. Among the 217,000 pictures shared across the planets, Oppy managed to sneak in a few selfies as well. I saw a few of them and they looked gorgeous.

The Voyage of Humanity.

Going to the moon was a significant milestone for humanity, but soon after, we totally shattered our own achievement with the Voyager.

Designed to uncover the shadows of our own solar system, the Voyager was launched on September 5, 1977. Two satellites with the same mission and the same name were launched some six months apart, both of which are still active and flying today.

The official Voyager mission was to use a combination of interplanetary gravity and on board thrusters to study Jupiter and Saturn. Here, as NASA officially confirms,  they made extraordinary discoveries like active volcanoes on Jupiter and the complexities of the network of Saturn’s rings. After the success of these missions, their official purpose was extended to encompass Uranus and Neptune, the planets at the absolute edge of our solar system. Here, the voyagers made yet another set of discoveries ranging from Neptune’s eye to the existence of Uranus’ fine, almost invisible rings.

However, their true mission was always to reach out further than our own backyard. NASA always knew that once released into the vast open fabric of space, there was no coming back for the capable satellites. So naturally, they fitted it with a gold plated copper disc with some of the hallmarks of humanity etched into it.

Ranging from pictures of ladybugs to Mozart’s masterpieces, the Voyager is expected to be the first point of contact for humans to possible extraterrestrials, long after the Voyager itself is dead and drifting away deeper into space.

And again, it is just that! What gets to me and what will always get to me is the fact that this satellite which was launched some 40 years ago, is somewhere out there. It is cold and alone in deep space, traveling 38,000 miles an hour away from its home. It has barely any contact with the ground team and it has shut off its cameras and other processors just to stay alive. It is using its other sensors, such as cosmic wind thermometers and plasma science sensors, to relay primitive information about interstellar space back to earth. In other words, it is driving at 38,000 miles per hour with eyes and ears closed.

Its nuclear reactor of a power source is expected to completely decay by mid-2025, at which point this satellite will be completely dead, yet still hurtling towards unknown masses in space at the same 38,000 miles.

Go ahead. Process what you just read.

The Jade Rabbit of the space race.

Now, having established the nobility of the space race and the missions that the United States in particular has achieved, it is time for us to shed some light on still forthcoming and potentially powerful projects from around the world, the most notable of which is China’s Chang’e 4 and its rover dubbed The Jade Rabbit.

China is now the current leader of the space program after its satellite became the first ever satellite to land on the dark side of the moon. It has already made discoveries of new elements such as rocks made of ‘Imbrium,’ only a theoretical element till now. This is also the first satellite that has made contact with the far side of the moon, of which we had only pictures till now. This is exciting because, unlike the ‘mare,’ as NASA calls it, the far side features larger craters, some of which might be bigger than some small countries here on earth.

Want me to blow your mind? The Jade Rabbit is carrying 6 different organics including potatoes and cotton to potentially plant on the moon.
We might not have flying hoverboards but hey, one day, you might just have moon fries.

This is also exciting simply because with China’s satellite we as a species are evolving from simply exploring the universe to actually interacting with it.

I find that simply awe-inspiring.

What this means

Here’s the thing. Space is unifying.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, the sky is an expanse wherever you go: it is the same window into the heavens and worlds beyond.

As a boy, I used to look up and be lost in the magnitude of it all, and there are countless other boys and girls across the world who look up into the same sky and feel equally mesmerized. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Greenland or from Tierra del Fuego, the sky and the space forces us all into being the same human beings, the same pioneers who are ever at the forefront of breaking our own boundaries.

To be human is to be explorers and risk takers. That’s who we are, we are trailblazers, and Oppy proves that. We spent years developing Oppy and the scientists watched her and guided her from worlds away. She helped us see beyond ourselves and she helped us extend our hands further out.

In the end the tiny satellite and Voyager both are eventual artifacts of human exploration and commitments. Despite the emotion that is ever present around these grand machines and countless others to come along the way, these machines, in their immense achievements and revolutionary discoveries, are tools that underline how far we have come as species—and how far we are willing to go.


In “Musings,” sophomore Krishna Pamidi shares a new adventure every week about the grand modesty that is called life by exploring the global twists to universal experiences.