Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Little Robot That Could (Daily Northwestern 11/14/08)

Last week, we lost an American hero. He was an explorer, a scientist and even a cowboy. He braved a furious frontier, and he died out there. Today we remember the noble life of a Mars lander named Phoenix.

To be sure, he was but a robot. Mars, however, has never met a soul more human. He stood on the shoulders of giants - Lewis and Clark, Galileo, R2-D2 - so that he could reach out and touch the sky. Now he rests among the stars, in the frozen tundra near the northern pole of Mars. Sarah Palin must envy his view.

NASA named him after the mythical bird because he contained parts and instruments recycled from previous projects. Quite literally, he rose from the ashes of those who died before him. He began his journey on Aug. 4, 2007. Almost a year later, on May 25, he landed in an area called Green Valley near Mars' north pole.

Projected to last no more than three months, Phoenix persevered for far longer. During his Martian exploration, he made several groundbreaking discoveries. His most famous was the presence of liquid water beneath Mars' surface. This simple finding has restored hope for life on Mars and renewed Will Smith's dream of saving the world from certain extraterrestrial destruction.

The little robot also made several discoveries whose relationship to Will Smith is tenuous and thus less interesting. Still, we should note them here: We now know Mars' soil is alkaline, although I do not know what that means. Phoenix also provided scientists with a daily diary of Martian weather, which is by and large cold. It appears there is also no hurricane activity on Mars. Now we never have to ask Kanye if George Bush cares about space people.

According to NASA, this weather is what brought about Phoenix's demise. Martian winters are not just cold but also dark. Sadly, Phoenix was solar-powered. All the more tragic, he will not reboot when the sun returns. Our robotic hero will not recover from the permafrost. His antennae will tremble and motor will slow as a long, long winter buries him. We can only hope that NASA will send another robot to Mars who can discover him, repair him and become his best friend. Like Wall-E, Phoenix has earned his Eve.

Little Phoenix leaves behind a legacy too big to fit into NASA's archives. That legacy is simply discovery. He is a monument to what pulled cavemen out of the tunnels, over the mountains, across the oceans and up into space. Our quixotic explorer would not want us to lose sight of that.

Throughout his journey, Phoenix beamed darling binary messages back home along with his data. NASA kindly turned the ones and zeros into words and posted them on Twitter, adding blogger to Phoenix's pedigree. I remember fondly an early one: "It's all full of stars."

Yet Phoenix will hardly be considered just another blogger who died alone. Instead, his final words perfectly capture how we should remember him: "01010100 01110010 01101001 01110101 01101101 01110000 01101000 <3."

("Triumph <3").

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