Beta
×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Final Attempts To Contact Mars Spirit Rover Fail

Unknown Lamer posted more than 3 years ago | from the it-had-a-good-run dept.

Mars 95

dotancohen writes "After nearly a year of trying to reestablish communications with the Mars Spirit rover, NASA has decided to suspend efforts. Communications channels used to contact the vehicle (redesignated from "rover" to "spot" when it got stuck in a sand trap) will be used to develop a communications base with the next Mars rover: the ambitious Mars Science Laboratory."

cancel ×

95 comments

Sorry! There are no comments related to the filter you selected.

On the upside (4, Interesting)

MonsterTrimble (1205334) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239346)

They know EXACTLY where it is so when we finally get to Mars we can go get it.

Re:On the upside (1)

FauxPasIII (75900) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239358)

You assume it hasn't become self-aware and buggered off, Wall-E style.

Re:On the upside (1)

MonsterTrimble (1205334) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239444)

As long as it doesn't come back to earth with boots of lead, I'm good.

Re:On the upside (4, Interesting)

flyingsquid (813711) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240206)

They know EXACTLY where it is so when we finally get to Mars we can go get it.

The final launch of the Endeavour marks the beginning of the end for an era in exploration. And it's sad to see it ending. But the end of the Spirit rover marks something very, very different. And that's the end of the beginning.

What we're seeing is a major technological transition. A new kind of hardware has emerged that's fundamentally superior to the old technology. It's analogous to stone being replaced by bronze. It's like clipper ships being replaced by steam, or battleships being replaced by carriers. It's like the typewriter being supplanted by the PC. And it's thrilling and deeply disturbing at the same time, because this time around, the hardware upgrade is personal. Very, very personal. Because the outmoded hardware that's being replaced is us.

The era of manned exploration of the cosmos is coming to an end, and the era of unmanned exploration is beginning in a serious way. Neil Armstrong is the old face of space exploration; Spirit is the new face. We'll get to Mars eventually but when we do it will be thoroughly mapped and analyzed and studied by robots. It won't fundamentally be exploration, it will be more like tourism. People talk about the shortcomings of robotic exploration, and how humans are more adaptible and versatile. Maybe that's true, if you ignore the incredible logistic hurdles required to support fragile flesh-and-bone hardware on a hostile planet. And maybe it's true that human hands are still better than metal manipulators... but only for now. The reality is that by the time we overcome the technological hurdles required to put humans on Mars, the technology of robots will have advanced. And they'll be able to move, to work, to do science, and to explore far more effectively in those environments than we will ever be able to do.

There's a visceral dislike to this, I know. It's hard to let go of the old idea of exploration, of putting human feet on an unexplored world. But I don't think we're really losing as much as some people fear. It may be unmanned exploration, but it is still human exploration. It's still humans envisioning the rockets, engineering the robots, writing up the software, somehow pulling off this amazing feat of exploration, and wondering at the results. At least, it is for now.

Re:On the upside (2, Insightful)

Brett Buck (811747) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240268)

The era of manned exploration of the cosmos is coming to an end, and the era of unmanned exploration is beginning in a serious way. Neil Armstrong is the old face of space exploration; Spirit is the new face. We'll get to Mars eventually but when we do it will be thoroughly mapped and analyzed and studied by robots. It won't fundamentally be exploration, it will be more like tourism. People talk about the shortcomings of robotic exploration, and how humans are more adaptible and versatile. Maybe that's true, if you ignore the incredible logistic hurdles required to support fragile flesh-and-bone hardware on a hostile planet. And maybe it's true that human hands are still better than metal manipulators... but only for now. The reality is that by the time we overcome the technological hurdles required to put humans on Mars, the technology of robots will have advanced. And they'll be able to move, to work, to do science, and to explore far more effectively in those environments than we will ever be able to do.

          And therefore pointless.

Re:On the upside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36241126)

          And therefore pointless.

There are many questions about planet formation, weather, and minerology that robot probes on other planets can answer. That furthers the knowledge of mankind. Of course the average person does not know or care about these fields of science. They care about humans on other planets. I hate those kind of people, and they make me want to eliminate NASA entirely.

Re:On the upside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36245348)

I hate those kind of people, and they make me want to eliminate NASA entirely.

Hate all you like; I'll wager we pay more in taxes than you do anyway. And we vote.
Your childlike spiteful attitude is pathetic.

Re:On the upside (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 3 years ago | (#36243968)

It won't fundamentally be exploration, it will be more like tourism.

Which is why we should skip the tourism stage and concentrate on the colonization stage, which is not pointless. A Mars mission should be an experiment on prototypes for a permanent base, solar panels, greenhouses, habitats, radiation shielding, water recycling, low-G health effects and that sort of thing. If they just go there to eat canned food and take tourist photos, then no.

As for robots, I don't think there's ever been doubt that there's many places probes can go that humans never will. And for the record, both Soviet Luna probes and US Surveyor probes landed on the Moon before Apollo 11. Even so it was very clearly the goal to put a man on the moon, not just a machine. I would say it's an important stepping stone for Mars as well, as long as it's done with a purpose. That is why the moon missions ended, it's like we've put men on the moon, now what?

Re:On the upside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36241162)

It's analogous to stone being replaced by bronze. It's like clipper ships being replaced by steam, or battleships being replaced by carriers. It's like the typewriter being supplanted by the PC. And it's thrilling and deeply disturbing...

It's like your mom being replaced by a first class whore. Thrilling, yet disturbing...

Re:On the upside (1)

fahrbot-bot (874524) | more than 3 years ago | (#36241456)

And they'll be able to move, to work, to do science, and to explore far more effectively in those environments than we will ever be able to do. ... It's hard to let go of the old idea of exploration, of putting human feet on an unexplored world.

What you said is well and good for the type of planets we are exploring, like Mars, that are presently uninhabitable easily by humans. Robots can do the initial grunt work followed by humans if the planet proves sufficiently worthwhile for us to visit or inhabit. The story would be completely different for an Earth-like, or human-life supporting, planet. In that case, we would probably send both robots and humans without a second thought.

Re:On the upside (3, Interesting)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36242836)

Good communications, regardless of whether it is from robots or humans, has always been the deciding factor between a success story and a disaster. The 9 mins, 30 secs delay to get from Mars to Earth and then the same in reverse means real-time assisntance is impossible. Having human assistants in orbit or on the ground reduces the delay to practically nothing. Those 19 minutes saved have the potential to salvage a mission.

Further, most mission-killers are minor failures. A failed motor, a sand trap, an exhausted RTG, dead batteries or a blocked solar panel. A human could fix any of these. The human wouldn't be doing the grunt-work, the human would be enabling the robots to do the grunt-work in as safe and protected a manner as possible. Worker safety isn't just about avoiding lawsuits or being ethical, it's also about getting better-quality work in less time for less expense in the long run.

Then there's the experiments themselves. A rover can't replace a damaged experiment module or upgrade a module with something more advanced later on. Humans can do that FOR a rover at much less cost and in far less time than building a new rover from scratch. There may also be experiments that you want to occasionally run that require more power than the rover's batteries can provide but where lugging around the extra batteries needed would be impractical. No problem. Humans go to the rover and plug in an external power supply.

Human-assisted robots are, by far, the best option for exploration of these kinds of worlds.

Humans in space are also good for deep-space probes. The Voyager and Pioneer probes, excellent demonstrations of success, had problems after launch. In one case, a radio antenna didn't unfurl properly. I seem to recall there was a glitch in an experiment in another. Absolutely nothing for a human in orbit to fix. The former problem caused slower transmission speeds to be used, again costing us valuable data. As successful as they were, they could have been twice that with human assistants.

(Even The Doctor knows how valuable human assistants are. And that, surely, is the clincher.)

Re:On the upside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36245774)

Humans in space are also good for deep-space probes.

Humans in space are really expensive. For the cost of one manned deep-space probe, you could have a hundred robotic ones - and purely by chance, several of them are likely to work perfectly.

From the rest of your post, though, I can see a justification for having a human on the ground (on Mars, say) if you have hundreds of rovers - enough that sending a human to fix them when they break is better than just sending another hundred rovers.

Re:On the upside (1)

flyingsquid (813711) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245978)

Further, most mission-killers are minor failures. A failed motor, a sand trap, an exhausted RTG, dead batteries or a blocked solar panel. A human could fix any of these.

First off, there's a very simple way to deal with this problem: redundancy. Robots are cheap and expendable, so just send two (or more) of them. One of them gets caught in the sand, the other keeps going, and the mission is saved. That's what NASA did here; Spirit got stuck in the sand but Opportunity is still working. Second, as robots get more sophisticated, it will become possible to have robots that can assist and repair the remaining robots. If the robots need repairmen, why do the repairmen have to be actual men? We already use ROVs to do repairs on undersea oil rigs, there's no reason we can't build robots that are capable of repairing other robots.

Good communications, regardless of whether it is from robots or humans, has always been the deciding factor between a success story and a disaster. The 9 mins, 30 secs delay to get from Mars to Earth and then the same in reverse means real-time assisntance is impossible. Having human assistants in orbit or on the ground reduces the delay to practically nothing. Those 19 minutes saved have the potential to salvage a mission.

That argument doesn't hold water either. If you really have a situation where lightning-fast reflexes are needed, the answer is simple: turn the task over to a machine. Machines can react faster than humans. We already have robot aircraft like the Predator that can take off, fly, and land without human intervention, we have robotically driven cars like the ones from the DARPA Grand Challenge that can drive themselves across uneven terrain. It's not that hard to build a rover that can take care of itself for 10 minutes at a stretch. Where humans are still needed is strategic decision making, but the moment-to-moment stuff can be turned over to the machines and machines are only going to become more autonomous, not less.

Then there's the experiments themselves. A rover can't replace a damaged experiment module or upgrade a module with something more advanced later on. Humans can do that FOR a rover at much less cost and in far less time than building a new rover from scratch.

No, they can't. Do the math. The entire Spirit/Opportunity mission cost about a billion dollars to launch, or $500 million per rover. Bush's Mars mission was projected to cost $40 billion to $80 billion. In other words, it would cost about 100 times as much to send someone to repair a rover as to send a new one. It is far, far cheaper and faster to build another robot than to send humans. And even for an extremely sophisticated, expensive piece of equipment like the Hubble that can't easily be replaced, we could repair it with another machine.

You're starting with the assumptions that humans are really necessary, so you're trying to invent things for them to do. But the reality is that most of these problems with automation can be solved with more automation.

Re:On the upside (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36247316)

Self-maintaining machines have been drempt about since the 40s. None exist. Pit a current UAV against a current fighter pilot and I'll tell you which is the more likely to get the job done. Sure, UAVs will eventually get smarter but AI is simply not advanced enough - and won't be for many, many decades - to replace humans for anything more than the most trivial of functions. Current AI can run through identification keys faster or run through simple herustics faster, sure, but that's it.

I was told in the 70s that knowing electronics was futile as computers would someday repair computers, and that computer programming was a useless skill as computers would someday program computers. Neither has happened and both skills are still very much the province of humans.

What may be possible a century from now - that's different. Maybe you could have robot repair-men on Mars by then. I'm not talking about then, though.

As for Bush, pffft. He had no head for numbers and NASA screwed up most of theirs under his regime. A manned mission to Mars would cost 10-15x as much as an unmanned mission, and given the survival rate of unmanned missions to Mars (about 50%), you would want to halve that difference since you've got to have the unmanned mission actually reach the ground safely.

Re:On the upside (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#36242272)

What we're seeing is a major technological transition. A new kind of hardware has emerged that's fundamentally superior to the old technology. It's analogous to stone being replaced by bronze. It's like clipper ships being replaced by steam, or battleships being replaced by carriers. It's like the typewriter being supplanted by the PC. And it's thrilling and deeply disturbing at the same time, because this time around, the hardware upgrade is personal. Very, very personal. Because the outmoded hardware that's being replaced is us.

Actually, it's more analogous to replacing bronze with wood, steam with sails, and PC's with stone tablets and chisels. Replacing 'us' is a giant step backwards.
 
Spirit traveled 4.8 miles in three years - the Apollo 15 Lunar Rover covered 17 miles in three hours. (And Spirit took the efforts of an entire backroom team to move every tortuous inch. The Apollo crews just got in and drove.) I recall reading in Steven Squyres' book about how one of the rovers spent an entire week backing and filling so it could photograph a rock from all sides - something a human being could have done in minutes.
 

The reality is that by the time we overcome the technological hurdles required to put humans on Mars, the technology of robots will have advanced. And they'll be able to move, to work, to do science, and to explore far more effectively in those environments than we will ever be able to do.

That's a romantic assumption, not a fact. It also fails to take into account that robots have to improve by multiple orders of magnitude just to be as efficient as a human being, let alone being more so.

Re:On the upside (1)

flyingsquid (813711) | more than 3 years ago | (#36243888)

I recall reading in Steven Squyres' book about how one of the rovers spent an entire week backing and filling so it could photograph a rock from all sides - something a human being could have done in minutes.

That may be true, but so what? Perhaps the human performs well on Mars, but it would take 10-20 years and 100 billion dollars for us to develop the technology to get the person there. Who would you rather hire: a contractor who takes a week to do a job, charges 100 dollars, and starts today, or a contractor who takes a day to finish, but charges 100,000 dollars, and won't be ready to start for ten years?

Re:On the upside (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#36244508)

I recall reading in Steven Squyres' book about how one of the rovers spent an entire week backing and filling so it could photograph a rock from all sides - something a human being could have done in minutes.

That may be true, but so what?

Duh, that robots are nowhere near as efficient as humans. Something I gave several examples of, and which you willfully ignore.
 

Perhaps the human performs well on Mars, but it would take 10-20 years and 100 billion dollars for us to develop the technology to get the person there.

Then we better start saving our pennies and getting on with the job.
 

Who would you rather hire: a contractor who takes a week to do a job, charges 100 dollars, and starts today, or a contractor who takes a day to finish, but charges 100,000 dollars, and won't be ready to start for ten years?

If the first contract could accomplish the same job as the second for that money - that would be a valid question. But he cannot, which is my point.
 
You have some very romantic, and very wrong, ideas about how capable and cheap robots are.

Re:On the upside (1)

flyingsquid (813711) | more than 3 years ago | (#36246824)

You have some very romantic, and very wrong, ideas about how capable and cheap robots are.

Let's talk figures then. Bush's Mars mission was projected to cost $40-$80 billion dollars, which is probably a huge underestimate considering that the International Space Station cost about that much and a space station is a far, far simpler problem. The total cost for putting Spirit and Opportunity on Mars was $800 million. In other words, for the price of a brief manned mission you could put 100-200 rovers on Mars that could then stay there for years. Robots are orders of magnitude cheaper, and while they move slowly, they can operate for years. For the same amount of money, robotic probes could survey more of the planet for a longer time, and ultimately do more science. And as far as romanticism goes, human spaceflight is decades away, and it's unclear when it's going to happen. It's science fiction. That's romantic. Opportunity has been operating on Mars since 2004. It's proven technology, it's been in use for years, and it's only getting better. That's the realistic approach.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245260)

"Steven Squyres' book about how one of the rovers spent an entire week backing and filling so it could photograph a rock from all sides - something a human being could have done in minutes."

The humans that drove their rover around that rock via remote control got the photographs a few years ago. If humans using a steering wheel to drive their rover around the rock are so much more efficient, why aren't they anywhere close? If the objective is to get photographs of that rock, humans driving rovers by remote control have won the race by decades for a vanishingly small fraction of the cost. Why does it not count? Just because they used better tools? Certainly a human in direct control would be more efficient if you ignore the cost and difficulty of getting them there and keeping them operational/alive. But getting there and remaining operational is actually the entire problem.

Do you have similar objection to bomb-defusing robots? Why put up with tediously maneuvering a manipulator arm? A human could reach in and clip that wire in seconds!

Re:On the upside (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245792)

That sound you heard was my point going over your head.
 

Certainly a human in direct control would be more efficient if you ignore the cost and difficulty of getting them there and keeping them operational/alive.

True, and if you paid attention to what I was writing, something I never argued against. The OP was praising the efficiency and effectiveness of robots as compared with humans - without realizing he had transposed his numbers. They aren't as efficient as humans. They aren't as effective as humans. (Not even close on either count.) Robots are cheaper, but as with everything else you get what you pay for.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36255626)

"That sound you heard was my point going over your head."
Then why does your reply reiterate exactly the point I thought I understood? To be clear, you're claiming humans exploring Mars via remote probes aren't as efficient or effective as those who do not use remote probes. Please do correct me if this is not you claim, because that is the claim I am arguing against. If that is your claim, please dispense with ridiculing people for not understanding you when they clearly just disagree with you.

Humans using robotic probes got the job done much faster and much more cheaply. What definition of "efficient" are you using? Efficient in terms of what? Not time or cost obviously.
Humans driving via remote control have photographed the rock. Humans driving via steering wheel have not. What does "effective" mean if it doesn't involve accomplishing the task?
Human exploration of Mars via remotely controlled probe is wildly more efficient and effective than human exploration of Mars without remote probes. This is not speculation, or a romantic assumption, it's historical fact. The effective approach is the one that get's the job done. I have the picture of the rock right here on my desktop, and it was taken by a human who used a remote control.

Seriously, is there any other field of endeavor where you would say: "Team A finished up the job yesterday. Team B speculates they might finish 20 years from now for a thousand times the cost. Team A isn't as efficient and effective as Team B, not even close."? Of course you wouldn't, it's ridiculous.

Re:On the upside (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36242412)

Manned exploration is largely irrelevant. What is very relevant is the speed of light. A manned outpost on Mars, or indeed anywhere in space near Mars, would be able to collect data real-time, detect obstacles that the robots aren't programmed to avoid, and could potentially repair those robots when they become disabled.

What is also relevant is bandwidth. Because of all the error-correction needed to salvage data from deep-space communications, the power limitations involved and the heavy restrictions on what you can shove into radiation-resistant ICs, the data that can be transmitted will be a fraction of what could potentially be collected. If, instead of trying to transmit it directly back to Earth, it was transmitted to an orbital station that can physically return to Earth, the volume of data these missions can collect skyrockets.

Sure, the orbital has no requirement to be manned for the bandwidth reason, but it does when considering the reaction time reason. Near-zero latency, as opposed to 9 minutes and 30 seconds. If you've ever bogged down a car in a few seconds of spinning wheels in mud, imagine what almost 10 minutes of spinning the wheels would do. It also matters for the maintenance reason. Spirit's motor is jammed? No prob, here's a spare. Unsure if the battery will last through winter? An RTG and crocodile clips. Timmy's fallen down a well? Not my problem, this is Mars.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245354)

"Spirit's motor is jammed? No prob, here's a spare."

No prob, other than establishing a manned base on Mars. If you want to repair the rover, and you've got the budget for a manned outpost on Mars, why not just some entire spare rovers instead? Like a few thousand or so.

Re:On the upside (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36247252)

Because building and running a manned base is (a) relatively cheap, and (b) more reliable as there's fewer components to go wrong.

A manned base takes adequate radiation shielding (not hard), oxygen scrubbers (NASA's got those), a vehicle capable of going from Martian surface to orbit (similar to the lunar landers), two years of food and a kindle with enough books to last the one year in, one year back (big deal, torrents should work fine using the Delay Tolerant Protocol NASA developed).

A thousand launchers, alone, would outstrip the cost of such a venture by enough orders of magnitude to plunge the Earth's economy into permanent recession. A thousand rovers alone, ignoring all operating costs, would so vastly exceed the cost of switching from a relatively light launcher for a rover to two or three heavy launchers for the couple of humans, two sets of spare parts and essential supplies, that you'd be insane to try it.

Can humans remain in almost total isolation for that long? Sure, you probably want to opt for people who are on the heavier side of Aspergers or even HFA, since they're best-equipt to handle it. Old-Series Trekkies could manage it as well, since the DVDs for the episodes won't cost as much as a year's supply of books, but you'd get too many complaints that the rovers were illogical.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36254398)

"A thousand launchers, alone, would outstrip the cost of such a venture..."

Look up the cost to put two rovers on mars for the last several years vs. the cost to operate the ISS (in LEO!) over the same time. If you can get a man to Mars for 1 day and back alive for less than 1000 times what Spirit cost, you're way ahead of the state of the art. Do you suggest the cost of a manned presence on Mars ought to be vastly cheaper than a manned presence skimming Earths atmosphere in the ISS?

Re:On the upside (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36255288)

Actually, yes, I do. The cost of reaching escape velocity is fixed, so whether go to the ISS or Mars doesn't change the cost of the launcher at all. The cost of =staying= in orbit is high (you've got to overcome drag, move away from space debris, etc). The cost of staying on the ground is nil, since the base isn't going anywhere. The cost of replacing the men on the ISS is high, the cost of not replacing anyone whilst on-route, at, or returning, from Mars is nil. The cost of assembling hundreds of modules packed with scientific equiptment, launching and assembling them is high. The cost of three modules, packed with food and spare parts, is very close to nil.

Way ahead of state-of-the-art? This is Werner von Braun had all figured out in the 70s. Don't blame me if NASA is four decades behind where it was.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36256850)

So the IIS would be radically cheaper in a slightly higher orbit? Say 2 * geosyncronous. Drag and space debris there are irrelevant. Weird that the IIS planners didn't want to make it so much cheaper.

Skip replacing the crew too and just go for the cost of the unmanned supply drones that are most flights to IIS anyway: it's still orders of magnitude more than sending the rovers to Mars. The number of pounds you have to boost to LEO to keep a man alive for a year is the same if he stays there or keeps going to Mars. Well, actually Mars is about 30% more boost, because contrary to your assertion, the IIS isn't at escape velocity. (Hence it's lack of escaping) But just the part of the IIS cost that is boosting food/water/etc. to LEO is all by itself orders of magnitude more expensive than the rovers.

"Way ahead of state-of-the-art? This is Werner von Braun had all figured out in the 70s."

The state of the art is you actually do, not what you imagine before you figure out the details by actually doing it. In any case, NASA is way beyond where von Braun ever imagined. They have taken advantage of huge technological progress over what he could do. Notably, progress in tele-robotics has allowed them to explore Mars!

The cost of any space mission is almost entirely the R&D before launch (still got a bunch to do for Mars compared to the IIS) and the amount of weight you need to get up there. The weight of a manned mission is mostly the supplies to keep him alive which is the same in LEO as on Mars.

Re:On the upside (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36244070)

For myself, I think we are just on the verge of a renewed genuine manned (or "crewed" for the more politically correct crowd) spaceflight expeditions of the future. What the final launch of the Shuttle will imply is the end of the massive big-budget government programs that are stopping mankind from spreading out at least within the solar system.

Yes, I assert and claim that NASA has done more to stop the expansion of mankind into the cosmos than they have helped, particularly over the past couple of decades. With tens of billions of dollars dumped on Constellation, a similar amount being proposed to be tossed at the "SLS" (aka "Senate Launch System") along with over a dozen other failed manned spaceflight projects that have gone through NASA over the past several decades, I see an agency that is hindering the process for Americans to build upon their legacies to continue going forward.

It is sad that the furthest any crew has been from the Earth was the crew from Apollo 13 (due to their free-return trajectory as the fastest means to return to the Earth with the limited fuel sources they had). That is a record that should have not only been passed decades ago, but should have been passed up regularly and by orders of magnitude since. We have been in the doldrums of manned spaceflight for quite some time, and all that has happened is a stagnant spaceflight industry that is no longer attracting the best and the brightest minds due to the fact that nothing is really being built any more... at least with the traditional government cost-plus contracting business models that built the Manhattan Project and flew people to the Moon with Apollo. Not only is manned spaceflight going downhill, robotic spacecraft developed under the same system is going to become more and more rare as well.

To make my point, major robotic missions like Cassini, Voyager, and even the Mariner missions are unlikely to be repeated in the future. Support for such big government programs that will take decades to perform no longer has congressional support. There are indeed some smaller robotic craft being developed, but please name a major new robotic spacecraft system that is currently being proposed at NASA which can follow up on research that has already been done. More significantly, the reason why the loss of Spirit is so awful is precisely because there isn't any sort of "replacement" of this scientific research platform due to funding cuts and a lack of interest on the part of Congress to build another rover vehicle that will take its place. There are certainly scientists and even NASA bureaucrats who have proposed such vehicles, but they aren't getting the support to get accomplished. This is on top of the fact that the robotic missions are usually the first things cut when the NASA budget goes through the meat grinder of the congressional appropriations process.

Getting back to my more optimistic appraisal, I think we are on the verge of a new wave of exploration because it will be moving more to private citizens. The wave of the future is with private spaceflight, more specifically with some of the new commercial spaceflight companies who are getting the brighter people in the industry... because that is where things are happening. It may include robotic vehicles as well as crews going into space, but they won't be primarily dependent upon the fickle winds of politics for funding those endeavors.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the government is going to be completely out of the loop any more, but NASA isn't going to be the bleeding edge of spaceflight technologies any more. I think stuff like Project Morpheus [nasa.gov] is going to be much more common at NASA, where they are going to work to refine technologies developed by private companies and citizens. There is already some consideration that Bigelow Aerospace might be contracted out for some ISS modules (or a separate NASA-financed space station) and other commercial companies like SpaceX already are being considered for future NASA astronaut corps missions. The future looks bright indeed for spaceflight, but don't look to JSC or any other government alphabet soup locations for that innovation as it isn't going to be coming from that direction.

Re:On the upside (1)

Hazelfield (1557317) | more than 3 years ago | (#36244674)

I think we're quite a bit farther away from making robots as useful as humans than we are from launching a human mission to Mars.

As awesome as the rovers are, they're hopelessly, frustratingly inefficient. It's hard to control something located a dozen light minutes away. The total distance traversed by Spirit is 10 km and by Opportunity 27 km. Every single movement must be carefully planned before uploading the command so the rover doesn't get stuck in a sand dune or fall off a cliff somewhere. All the progress made by the Mars rovers in six years could probably have been accomplished by human astronauts in just a few days.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245488)

"All the progress made by the Mars rovers in six years could probably have been accomplished by human astronauts in just a few days"

Then why didn't they? It's been six years, and there is no indication human astronauts will accomplish the same thing in the next twenty, so your "few days" estimate may be off. When it comes to exploring Mars, moving across the surface and pointing a camera isn't actually the whole task. Getting there and remaining operational/alive are actually part of the problem. Accepting a less efficient means for accomplishing one part of a task because it makes a vastly harder part less difficult isn't cheating, it's smart. Which is why the humans that have been exploring using rovers have been exploring Mars; while humans who physically go there themselves have spent orders of magnitude more money to explore low earth orbit.

Re:On the upside (1)

Hazelfield (1557317) | more than 3 years ago | (#36256548)

That's a very valid point. Astronauts are versatile and orders of magnitude more useful for doing science in situ, but are also orders of magnitude more difficult to transport and keep operational there. Just the little matter of having to return to Earth poses a pretty big challenge.

On the other hand, if we keep limiting human space presence to low earth orbit then we'll never lower the barrier of getting humans into space - and that's where we want to be, eventually. Unmanned vehicles have their time and place, but they will only take us so far. It's like when airplanes replaced ships for long-distance travel - the planes were more difficult to build (and still are), they had many inherent weaknesses such as the need for long runways and tight security (still true), but in the end the pros outweighed the cons and we learnt how to handle the problems. That's what I hope will happen with human space exploration as well. Even very difficult problems can be solved if the gains are large enough.

Re:On the upside (1)

2short (466733) | more than 3 years ago | (#36257600)

:"we'll never lower the barrier of getting humans into space - and that's where we want to be, eventually"
Why?

"Unmanned vehicles have their time and place, but they will only take us so far"
Further and faster than manned flights.

"It's like when airplanes replaced ships for long-distance travel"
I'd say it's like when electronic communications replaced sending letters. Communications got easier because electrons are a better way to transmit information than paper. It's not a matter of waiting until mail delivery gets cheaper. Lot's of people early on didn't think of an electronic copy of a document was as "real" as actual paper, but they are getting over that. So shall it be with tele-robotic exploration.

I guess it depends on your goal for space flight:

Exploration: This is my goal. I want to learn what Mars (and other planets) are like, and look for life to which we are not related. This goal is better served via unmanned probes, and I expect it will be forever. Particularly looking for life; Humans are giant balls of contamination and do not take well to being autoclaved.

Tourism: It won't get cheap enough before I die for me to personally go into space, nor in the long run for significant fractions of humanity to do so. As far as the future wealthy and the current mega-wealthy: screw 'em.

Colonization: A population of humans who could live on independent of Earth has some appeal. But it isn't close, and being able to cheaply launch humans into space isn't the big hurdle. I'd argue exploration via robotic probes is a better way to advance this goal today.

Re:On the upside (1)

Hazelfield (1557317) | more than 3 years ago | (#36267908)

Maybe you're right... But I think you're forgetting something: human space exploration has values beyond the purely rational. Kennedy didn't propose putting a man on the moon because it was useful somehow, he did it to inspire his people, to win the space race against the Soviet Union, and to win votes in future elections. Just look at this speech - if Obama or someone else manages to put together a piece half as inspiring, then I think we will have a human on Mars within 15 years: http://webcast.rice.edu/speeches/19620912kennedy.html [rice.edu]

Re:On the upside (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#36246062)

What we're seeing is a major technological transition. A new kind of hardware has emerged that's fundamentally superior to the old technology. It's analogous to stone being replaced by bronze. It's like clipper ships being replaced by steam, or battleships being replaced by carriers. It's like the typewriter being supplanted by the PC. And it's thrilling and deeply disturbing at the same time, because this time around, the hardware upgrade is personal. Very, very personal. Because the outmoded hardware that's being replaced is us.

There's an alternate explanation. Namely, that the US and the rest of the world was too cheap to do serious exploration. Humans are far superior to the Mars Exploration Rovers, but humans cost considerably more to deploy and support. If you just want to check off the box "We're exploring Mars," then unmanned missions are cheaper. If you're interested in scientific output per dollar, then manned missions (with considerable unmanned support) are better.

A key problem which is routinely ignored in this sort of argument is the huge turnaround time when a robot in the current paradigm discovers something that it can't deal with. We have to wait years, often many decades, before a new mission comes out to study the ambiguous observation. A manned mission simply would not be thwarted by that. Things would go unexplained only because there was more exciting things to dwell on rather than now, when the only knowledge of deep space comes through in trickles from the occasional space probe.

I note also that you don't consider improving the humans despite the fact they're already the best robots we have. It makes no sense. Imagine we build a marvelous robot that bests us in every category. Then rather than improve it further, we start from scratch building new generations of robots and boast that the original robot will become useless because the new line of robots will eventually become better. This hasn't been thought out.

Re:On the upside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36249496)

And they'll be able to move, to work, to do science, and to explore far more effectively

+5 Insightful

~GlaDOS

Re:On the upside (1)

Lumpy (12016) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240222)

You know that first mars colony museum will have a very cool science wing. they already have a pile of stuff for it, just need to drive around and pick them up.

Re:On the upside (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36244324)

Hasn't the original Viking 1 lander location already been declared a "UNESCO World Heritage Site"?

To me, however, the more impressive artifacts on Mars would be those vehicles which failed to land properly or failed to transmit the data back to the Earth. There are a couple of Soviet probes that predated the Viking landers as well as a few infamous vehicles sent up by America that would certainly be of interest in that regard.

That said, Mars is a pretty big place. Its surface area is roughly the same as the land surface area here on Earth of all of the continents combined... so a quick trip around the planet is still going to take some time to accomplish.

Re:On the upside (1)

antdude (79039) | more than 3 years ago | (#36242476)

Can it be moved or even buried by winds?

Re:On the upside (1)

Carnildo (712617) | more than 3 years ago | (#36243790)

Martian winds are nowhere near strong enough to move the rover -- because of the low pressure, even the strongest winds would be just barely perceptible to a human.

Over the short run (hundreds of years), burying is unlikely: there's nothing near Spirit that's a good enough windbreak to generate a drift covering the rover. The rover will generate its own downwind drifts, but in the short run, those will simply make it easier to find the rover. Over longer terms, it's quite possible that a more distant feature will generate a drift covering Spirit.

Re:On the upside (1)

dotancohen (1015143) | more than 3 years ago | (#36243434)

They know EXACTLY where it is so when we finally get to Mars we can go get it.

Can't be. Because it's stuck, all they know EXACTLY is it's velocity.

Re:On the upside (1)

RadiantPhoenix (2029232) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245050)

But ... we can see Mars at night sometimes, so we sorta know where it is...

Obligatory xkcd (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239364)

http://xkcd.com/695/

85% of the time, these actually parse correctly (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36241832)

obligatory goatkcd [goatkcd.com] for those that post the obligatory xkcd

Spirit did well (5, Insightful)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239380)

Spirit succeeded well beyond the initial planned for mission that was only supposed to last 90 days. This is a real triumph of engineering. The headline shouldn't be about failure but about how this lasted 20 times as long as it was intended. Oh, and of course there's the obligatory xkcd http://xkcd.com/695/ [xkcd.com] . And if you don't tear up a little bit on reading that then you don't have a heart.

Re:Spirit did well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239484)

I agree--the spirit rover rocked!!

Re:Spirit did well (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239802)

Landing something on Mars is certainly a triumph of engineering.

The fact that they designed the thing to almost certainly last for 90 days and probably much longer is sort of a matter the fact of engineering.

Re:Spirit did well (1)

rah1420 (234198) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240512)

If I showed this to my daughter, she would begin bawling even though she hates science and anything to do with it.

Re:Spirit did well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36242058)

Why is she still your daughter?

Re:Spirit did well (1)

badboy_tw2002 (524611) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240754)

I do not posses a heart and therefore am unable to tear up. I did spend several of the past microseconds reflecting on the accomplishment of metal brother Spirit, designation #03452125342-AB-34532. May his memory be reinstalled and emulated. Now back to destroying all humans.

Re:Spirit did well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36240784)

The failure is that this declaration is likely to directly translate into NASA layoffs of scientists from the Spirit team.
Short-sighted budget cuts are lame.

A Haiku (1)

sconeu (64226) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240892)

A little rover
Ever to remain on Mars
You did well, Spirit

Re:Spirit did well (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36240920)

Here's a remix of that xkcd comic that the MER team liked better than the original: http://twitpic.com/52etk7

Goodbye, Spirit, love, and well done.

Re:Spirit did well (4, Interesting)

ScottMaxwell (108831) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240952)

(Yeesh, let's try that again.)

Here's a remix of that xkcd strip that the MER team liked better than the original: http://twitpic.com/52etk7 [twitpic.com] .

Goodbye, Spirit, love, and well done.

Re:Spirit did well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36241066)

Sounds like over design. They could have made it lighter.

Re:Spirit did well (1)

Have Brain Will Rent (1031664) | more than 3 years ago | (#36241652)

I dunno - I think maybe the cartoon would be more effective if there had been a little kitten in harness pulling the rover around Mars...

Re:Spirit did well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36249080)

I must admit that I had a tear or two in my eye on hearing this. Spirit has done a great job but unfortunately the media have largely ignored her, and Oppurtunity's ongoing success so long after the launch of the program.

Spirit Rover: (1)

Xaemyl (88001) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239384)

forever alone

Re:Spirit Rover: (1)

kbitz (847782) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239482)

Good night sweet prince?

Get your ass to mars (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239396)

and find it yourself.

Rest in Peace Spirit (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239502)

Thanks for all the hard work!

Plutonium? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239566)

A bit surprised that I haven't seen concerns about the next rover (Mars Science Laboratory) using plutonium as its power source. Perhaps the complaints will start when the launch date gets closer.

Re:Plutonium? (1)

TamCaP (900777) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239688)

Shhh, the longer we can keep the NIMBY crazies in the dark, the better. Don't say a word.

Re:Plutonium? (1)

M8e (1008767) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239932)

Word!

Re:Plutonium? (1)

kurzweilfreak (829276) | more than 3 years ago | (#36244560)

I wish I considered Mars my back yard!

Damn you... (1)

tweewo (1618779) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239610)

...Howard Wolowitz!

Crowd source? (1)

mwfischer (1919758) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239642)

I'm by no means a scientist or really follow any of this stuff. I might even be horribly wrong.

My idea is simple. What if NASA crowd sources?
Do amateurs have access to stuff that will hit Mars?

The first team to get in contact / control of the rover has a mission named after them or wins some sort of prize etc.

NASA does something cool, they spend very little money, and they get their toy back.
Would it jeopardize the other functional rover? Does any other space stuff use the same tech? I can see that being the two problems to the idea.

Re:Crowd source? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239736)

My idea is simple. What if NASA crowd sources?

Seriously, much in the same way that "throw open source at it" isn't always the answer, "throw crowd sourcing at it" doesn't always logically work, either.

Re:Crowd source? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239768)

Do amateurs have access to stuff that will hit Mars?

No.

Re:Crowd source? (1)

Provocateur (133110) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239884)

What about FedEx? Give em some slack; don't overnight it.

Re:Crowd source? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36239844)

I have a better idea. What about putting it in the cloud?

Re:Crowd source? (1)

Brett Buck (811747) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240126)

I am sure you are welcome to try, but, if the thing is dead, its not a matter of trying harder.

Re:Crowd source? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36240430)

Maybe if we all clap our hands at the same time...

Re:Crowd source? (1)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240542)

While you are certainly welcome to try, this problem cannot be solved by spawning parallel efforts. This is not like SETI@Home or locating extrasolar planets; the challenge there was the task was known and repeatable, but the number of tasks was huge. NASA knows where the rover is; they have been sending messages. Spirit has not responded in over a year. NASA has to concede that the rover is dead. Attempting to contact it with multiple sources will not make the rover respond suddenly.

Farewell (3, Interesting)

matthew_t_west (800388) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239658)

Farewell good rover. You did a great job and I look forward to you being in the Mars Smithsonian in a couple centuries.

M

Re:Farewell (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36244960)

I don't doubt that Spirit will be in a place populated by people, but I highly doubt the place would be different than the place where it is now.

Re:Farewell (1)

sootman (158191) | more than 3 years ago | (#36245130)

Right next to Mars Fonzie's jacket and Mars Archie Bunker's chair. :-)

V-S Day: Late-breaking news from the Council (5, Funny)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239720)

The Council of Elders formally accepts the Articles of Surrender [nasa.gov] as ratified by the representatives of the blue planet. and hereby proclaims a day of planetary celebration: VS Day.

K'Breel, Speaker for the Council of Elders, spake thus:

"Long have we fought, long have we labored, but at least we have triumphed. It was half a year ago that the mechanized invader was finally defeated - half a year that the blue planet's oxygen-poisoned denizens dithered and denied, but at least, they have seen the truth for what it is. Rejoice, podmates! Wiggle your gelsacs in celebration! We proclaim today VS Day - Victory over Spirit!"

When a rather plump intelligence analyst suggested that today's victory was merely the result of normal seasonal changes, and that there still remained the issue of the second - still operational - invader, and furthermore, that code names gleaned from transmissions from the blue planet indicated the imminent launch of an even more powerful foe with a power source not subject to seasonal weather changes, K'Breel ordered that the analyst's gelsacs be frozen solid, irradiated, and thrown into the Planetary Trench. "Curiosity," said K'Breel, "felled the fat."

Re:V-S Day: Late-breaking news from the Council (2)

TheDarkMaster (1292526) | more than 3 years ago | (#36239838)

Thanks, you almost made me overthrow my coffee from laughing :)

Re:V-S Day: Late-breaking news from the Council (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36240414)

Well, I've read it as Failed Attempts to Contact Spirits

It's a 6 year old (1)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240138)

From what I've seen of that age group, you have to physically walk over to it, make eye contact, and repeat your command.

Re:It's a 6 year old (1)

GReaToaK_2000 (217386) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240452)

And even then, sometimes that doesn't work.

Re:It's a 6 year old (1)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#36241646)

Has NASA tried counting backwards from five?

I'm an engineer, not a doctor (1)

MaxEmerika (701730) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240350)

It's dead, Jim.

NASA statement (1)

Iceman4234 (453874) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240422)

It's Dead.. Jim

Should never have happened... (1)

Saint Ego (464379) | more than 3 years ago | (#36240834)

...all those golfers at NASA and they couldn't avoid a sand trap? C'mon, seriously?

Re:Should never have happened... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36244452)

Imagine a golf course that is >80% sand trap. And your golf cart has wheels only 25cm (10 inches) in diameter, and runs on solar power. And some of the "sand" is more the consistency of flour.

Granted, it's 6-wheel drive, but at >7km riding over sand, bedrock, and boulders, Spirit didn't do that bad. And Opportunity is up to 29km, with ~4km left to get to Endeavour Crater. Mind you, they did get stuck once with Opportunity [wikipedia.org] in "Purgatory Dune" [wikipedia.org] , but managed to back out. They've had to update the software and plan the path fairly carefully to avoid a repeat.

Save the Rover (1)

psybre (921148) | more than 3 years ago | (#36241054)

C'mon - lets just go there and get it! What's the hold up? I'm ready right now.

Re:Save the Rover (1)

pluther (647209) | more than 3 years ago | (#36241804)

I'm in. I'll drive if you cover gas.

GLOBAL WARMING (1)

SnarfQuest (469614) | more than 3 years ago | (#36241642)

We all know what REALLY happened. The Martians got pissed of with us exporting our SUV's and causing Global Warming on their planet, so they took baseball bats to it. Remember, only humans can cause Global Warming; not Martians, not the Sun, nothing else is possible!

Good Night Sweet Prince (1)

Lifyre (960576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36242436)

Perhaps soon we can send someone to come get you and show you to the place of honor you deserve for the path you have forged and the places you have pioneered.

Open Source It!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36246530)

Come on NASA, Open Source all the communication protocols, and such and let Amateurs have a Go at it, what have you got to Lose???

Bless you, Spirit. (1)

eriqk (1902450) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264838)

Blirit.
Check for New Comments
Slashdot Login

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?

Submission Text Formatting Tips

We support a small subset of HTML, namely these tags:

  • b
  • i
  • p
  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>