Let me start with the good news, which is that Opportunity‘s solar panels were at one point even cleaner than when I last wrote about this, the dust factor reported on May 13 being 0.964, meaning that the dust still gathered on the solar panels blocked only 3.6% of sunlight from reaching them. That value has dropped back under 0.9 according to the most recent updates, but it’s still better than at any other point since these measurements started being reported, back in 2007, and I remember reading somewhere that the panels are actually cleaner than they have been since the first year, which was 2004. In fact, though the days are still short, the Martian Southern Spring Equinox falling on August 17, the rover has so much power available that mission managers need to come up with reasons to wake it up late at night in order to condition the batteries.
Unfortunately, however, flash memory problems have been particularly frequent lately, leading to a number of resets and “amnesia events” that make me worry about the mission’s future, seeing as a rover that can’t store the data obtained or even the commands received will be useless. Not that it’s in any way unexpected, since there’s a limit to the number of times each sector of flash memory can be written to and Opportunity has been operating on Mars for nearly ten and a half years while tomorrow it’ll be exactly 11 years since she was launched, but I sure hope they’ll find some way around the issue and keep going, because it’ll sure be a terribly sad day when this mission will end.
And since I mentioned terribly sad days, we’re definitely set to have them in 2017, when both Cassini and Juno are set to end their missions, the latter obviously assuming that it’ll work properly in the first place, since it’ll only reach Jupiter in 2016. Obviously, NASA won’t admit that and even chose to name the final phase of the Cassini mission the Grand Finale, but I’d quite clearly go with something along the lines of Great Failure instead, considering what it implies.
While in the near future there will be two, at the moment our presence on or around a celestial body beyond Mars is limited to a single spacecraft, and that’s Cassini. Dawn is set to reach Ceres in 2015 and end its mission at best in early 2016, while Juno, as I said above, is set to reach Jupiter later during 2016 and end its mission the following year, likely a few months after Cassini will be sent inside Saturn’s atmosphere to be destroyed. And that’s it. The only planned mission beyond Mars at this moment is JUICE, which is set to launch in 2022 and reach Jupiter in 2030, so for many years we will have absolutely no presence whatsoever on or around any celestial body outside the inner solar system.
But wait, it gets even worse! The Voyagers are also set to run out of power at some point during the 2020s, while New Horizons may shut down even before that time, as current efforts are aimed at finding another target it can reach no more than four years after its 2015 flyby of Pluto. What this means is that there will probably be a period during the 2020s when we’ll have absolutely nothing left beyond Mars. Ever since the early 1970s, when Pioneer 10 reached first the asteroid belt and then Jupiter, we’ve had a continuous presence outside the inner solar system, yet some 50 years later that will probably cease to be the case!
In 1969 we could put people on the Moon! In 1977 we could launch the Voyagers, which are still operational and exploring the outer boundaries of the solar system, a few of their instruments even being better than those on New Horizons, which was launched in 2006! Then in 1997 we could launch Cassini, which is now set to end its mission around Saturn 20 years later! Yet in the late 2010s and early 2020s we won’t even be getting past Mars anymore!
We sure stopped dreaming, haven’t we? I mean, what the fuck happened to us? Isn’t science and technology supposed to advance? Weren’t we supposed to be in the space age? Why are we moving back instead of forward? Why do we keep looking down towards our feet instead of up towards the sky? And if we are to look down, why don’t we go up first, to gain a new perspective as we’ll look down at our beautiful, fragile world?
This does remind me of another Babylon 5 quote: “When you stumble a lot, you… You start looking at your feet. We have to make people lift their eyes back to the horizon and see the line of ancestors behind us saying ‘Make my life have meaning.’ And to our inheritors before us saying ‘Create the world we will live in.’ I mean, we’re not just holding jobs and having dinner. We are in the process of building the future.”
Too many people forget that. Too many care only about their pockets, stomach and groin, and at most those of a few loved ones as well. Too many focus only on the here and now, on immediate problems and instant gratification. Too many are only concerned with quick gains and practical results. Too many stumble merely because they refuse to open their eyes and lift their heads enough to see the cracks, hurdles, twists and turns ahead… And too many who would look and go farther are brought down by them as they writhe and crawl through the mud and dirt.
Well, I for one will keep looking up, here on Earth as well as to the stars, both literally and figuratively, and can only hope that, against all odds, enough others will eventually do the same. Merely looking and hoping and aiming won’t be enough on its own, but it’s necessary if we’re to have a chance to create a future worth living in, for ourselves and for the other species we share this pale blue dot with… And who knows, perhaps for others we will someday meet out there as well.