Saturday, February 04, 2006

Mars rovers

This month's meeting of the San Mateo County Astronomical Society featured Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary geologist and SETI researcher at NASA Ames. NASA Ames is full of people with unbelievably interesting jobs. Why isn't the government doing something about this? Do they know? Anyway Cabrol is part of the team that designed and now controls the Spirit rover on Mars. There's a little rivalry between the Spirit and Opportunity teams. Opportunity is known as "Miss Perfect" because she (they are female, though I always thought of them as boys) hit her landing site exactly after bouncing off a rock that turned out to be an important geological find. Spirit landed hard and nearly disastrously, gets dirty and had to drive backward a good part of the time because of a gimpy wheel. It turns out the rovers were designed to provide a human-eye view of Mars: the cameras are set the same distance apart as human eyes to provide stereoscopic vision like ours, and they're set at an average human's height. Maybe that's one reason the researchers are so attached to them. Cabrol said she doesn't go to work every day; she goes to Mars. They must have a strong sense of really being there, not only because of the eye-level photos but because the rovers' tools (like the RAT, or Rock Abrasion Tool) function similarly to human hands.

Poul Anderson's story "Call Me Joe" (from 1957) describes a remote exploration of Titan in which a human operates a lizard-like artifical life form on the surface through mind-to-mind transmissions. The operator is a quadraplegic; Joe is a fighter who swigs liquid methane. Eventually the operator's consciousness gets sucked down into Joe, swapping white-collar emasculation for macho, scaly freedom. Spirit and Opportunity are female and (perhaps not coincidentally) they're servants, cute and plucky. But their operators and observers on earth clearly endow them with life. In exchange for being our eyes, hands, and feet on Mars, the rovers get to borrow human consciousness--even if they're not aware of it.

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