Nov. 19, 2010 at 5:53 PM ET
Two of the latest craters encountered by NASA’s Opportunity rover during its nearly seven-year trek on Mars pay tribute to the sailing ships of old -- 41 years old, to be precise. Intrepid Crater and Yankee Clipper Crater are named after the lunar lander and command module for Apollo 12, which landed on the moon on today's date in 1969.
Opportunity drove past Yankee Clipper Crater on Nov. 4, and stopped at Intrepid Crater five days later. It's been a tradition for the craters encountered by the rover to be named after historic ships of exploration, such as Endeavour (Pacific explorer James Cook's vessel) and Endurance (polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship).
James Rice, a member of the rover science team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, picked up on that tradition -- and added in the topical twist from Apollo 12, the second mission to land on the moon.
"The Apollo missions were so inspiring when I was young, I remember all the dates," he explained in a news release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which serves as the Mars rovers' mission control. "When we were approaching these craters, I realized we were getting close to the Nov. 19 anniversary for Apollo 12."
Rice sent pictures of the craters to Apollo 12's Alan Bean and Dick Gordon, and this week the rover team received this reply:
"I just talked with Dick Gordon about the wonderful honor you have bestowed upon our Apollo 12 spacecraft," Bean wrote. "Forty-one years ago today, we were approaching the moon in Yankee Clipper with Intrepid in tow. We were excited to have the opportunity to perform some important exploration of a place in the universe other than planet Earth where humans had not gone before. We were anxious to give it our best effort. You and your team have that same opportunity. Give it your best effort."
The aptly named Opportunity is just past the halfway point in a years-long trek from Victoria Crater to the 13-mile-wide Endeavour Crater, which would be the biggest impact site ever explored on Mars. Intrepid and Yankee Clipper are puny in comparison, measuring about 66 feet (20 meters) and 33 feet (10 meters) wide, respectively. Intrepid is about the same size as Eagle Crater, the place into which Opportunity rolled during its "hole-in-one" landing on Mars, almost seven years ago. (In case you're wondering, Eagle Crater was named after the Apollo 11 lunar module. Remember? "The Eagle has landed.")
Since Opportunity's landing in January 2004, the rover has rolled 15.53 miles (25 kilometers), which serves as a milestone in the metric system.
"Importantly, it's not how far the rovers have gone, but how much exploration and science discovery they have accomplished on behalf of all humankind," JPL's John Callas, Mars exploration project manager, said in the news release. Over the past six years, Opportunity and its twin Spirit have turned up ample evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it was today, and could conceivably have harbored life.
Speaking of Spirit, that rover is still mute on the other side of the Red Planet, stuck in a sandy mire with two gimpy wheels. NASA's team tried to put the solar-powered robot in the best position available to weather the dim Martian winter -- but there's a chance that the big chill killed the rover's electronics.
No communication has been received from the rover since March, but NASA is continuing efforts to contact the rover using a paging technique known as "sweep and beep." If Spirit wakes up, NASA is ready to put it to work on a full agenda of stationary science. If Spirit has given up the ghost, as some scientists suspect, NASA can still take solace in the fact that it's gotten six years of exploration from a machine that was projected to last just 90 days on Mars.
Update for 6:55 p.m. ET Nov. 19: In a follow-up phone call, Callas said it's too early to give up on Spirit. The weather models for Mars indicated that last month was the earliest time for hearing from the rover, but as the Martian summer approaches, the sun is getting brighter every day where Spirit is sitting. "The peak of the solar insolation is around mid-March," he said. The sweep-and-beep strategy is aimed at getting the rover's attention just in case it wakes up but has lost track of time. So does this mean the rover team is keeping hope alive? "That's right," Callas said.
Correction for 12:15 p.m. ET Nov. 20: I originally referred to Dick Gordon as a moonwalker, but as Brant and Jeff pointed out in their comments below, Gordon never walked on the moon. He was orbiting above as the command module pilot while Bean and Pete Conrad went down to the surface. Gordon was slated to have his moonwalk as the commander of Apollo 18, but that mission was canceled due to budget cuts. Sorry about the error, and thanks for keeping me honest. (I've also corrected the projected lifetime for the rovers.)
More about Apollo 12 ... and Mars:
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