Mars hadn’t seen a storm like it in decades—a whirling monster of dry particulate matter sent careening into the sky by nearly 66 mile-per-hour winds. The dervish of Martian grit blotted out the sun, and with it, the vital source on energy for the plucky, unassuming rover named Opportunity.
Oppy had weathered its fair share of storms—in fact, far more than anyone had expected—but this one proved too much. As the sunless minutes ticked into sunless hours, its energy reserves ran down like sand in an hourglass until the final grain slid through the bottleneck and the electrons in Oppy’s quietly buzzing circuitry went still.
Like Roy Batty, the android replicant in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir Blade Runner, it was “time to die.”
Back on Earth, Dr. Steve Squyres, the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER), knew that this storm was different. “One of the worst in decades,” he says. But 54.6 six million kilometers away, he was powerless to shepherd Opportunity through the storm. He may have successfully landed the 185 kilogram science-lab-on-wheels at tens of thousands of miles per hour on a target moving 53,900 miles per hour, but he couldn’t stop the weather. He’s not a god.
Squyres was there when Opportunity first bounded onto the red planet at 12:05 a.m. Eastern Time on January 25, 2004, for a 90-day mission that would exceed its target run by a factor of 55. He was there when Oppy discovered iron-rich glaucus sphericules—”Blueberries,” they’d be called—that pointed toward a planetary history of water. He was there as the rover stumbled on a surprising iron-nickel meteorite like an accidental prospector. On March 24, 2015, when Oppy’s odometer clocked 26.219 miles—a full marathon; the first on an alien planet—he was there.
At the beginning of the project, Dr. Squyres and the rest of the team developed little rituals with the robotic scout, like playing wake up songs to nudge the rover alert from its occasional hibernation.
“We were really enjoying ourselves, you know, as part of making it fun for us and fun for the public, too,” recalls Dr. Squyres.
As the storm subsided, the MER team watched for some signal of activity from the robot they had come to love over the last 14 years (“But…you should use a word like love advisedly,” Dr. Squyres cautions. “Right?”). At first, they hoped that Opportunity would revive once the sun resumed baking the planet’s surface, but time soon dashed those hopes. Maybe the storm had blanketed Oppy’s solar panels in a layer dust that would blow off during the windy season. But, huddling somewhere in Perseverance Valley, even with Mars’ thin air sweeping its flanks, Opportunity remained silent.
Then, without consulting each other, individual members of the MER team all began to beam wake-up songs to Opportunity again. They picked songs that would jolt a sleep-deprived scientist out of bed: “For a time, they were all about high energy, let’s get going.” They played songs like “Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones, and “Kickstart My Heart,” by Mötley Crüe.
“We had quite a bag of tricks of things to try to regain contact with the rover,” Dr. Squyres says. “We got all the way to the bottom of the bag.”
“Nothing ever worked,” he says. “We tried eight months. Eight months. We tried everything that you could try and it just got down to the end and we’d done everything we could do.”
But before they declared the mission over, Dr. Squyres had one last message to send to Mars: “the final wake up song.” Only, this time, there was no expectation of the song working. Dr. Squyres chose the jazz standard, “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944), as sung by Billie Holiday.
“It’s a song of loss and longing, but also very deep fondness. You know, it, it manages to sort of touch the sad without being melancholy,” he says.
Lady Day’s voice comes through tinny; the warble of her vibrato gentle. But, like any eulogy, we are the audience, not the departed.
“It’s just such a strong natural tendency to project your hopes and your aspirations and your feelings across all the hundreds of millions of kilometers onto these vehicles. You do develop feelings for them,” Dr. Squyres reflects.
“As I said, you should use the word advisedly, but to the extent that it makes sense to love a robot, we loved him.”
As Billie sings in the final chorus:
I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you
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