Poor Mars rovers. Those plucky little robots get rocketed on a one-way mission to the Red Planet, only to live out their usefulness cold and alone on the desolate, lifeless rock. Good thing they don’t have feelings, though, right? Just wait until we start sending AI-equipped anthropomorphic robots to distant planets to toil themselves into obsolescence or be torn apart by giant insectoid aliens. It’ll be a lesson in empathy, that’s for sure.
One of NASA’s active Mars rovers, Opportunity, has been operating for more than 55 times its intended lifespan, but has been inactive for months since a planet-wide dust storm engulfed the Martian surface in darkness back in June. With no way to gather solar energy to charge its batteries, the Opportunity rover went into hibernation mode until it could absorb enough energy to phone home once the sun came back out.
The haze from the Martian tempest began to clear up a few months ago, but NASA scientists and engineers have been unable to wake the sleepy Opportunity rover. However, Opportunity appeared to suddenly gather enough strength to beam a short transmission back to Earth this week. Deep Space Network, an automated Twitter account which tracks NASA activity, announced that a NASA sensor was receiving data from Opportunity. Space watchers began to rejoice that the long-lasting, seemingly unbeatable Opportunity was reawakening.
However, a few hours later, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California retorted via Twitter that the signal was in fact not from Opportunity. Naturally, the internet exploded with claims of “UNKNOWN TRANSMISSIONS FROM MARS” and “MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS FROM OUTER SPACE” and while we would all love for that to be true, it turns out there’s likely a much more boring and banal explanation. There always is, isn’t there?
JPL scientists say the signal was a false alarm, most likely a blip due to a false positive or contamination from test data. Still, that won’t stop the tin foilers from claiming that NASA routinely lies to us or that this is likely a cover-up of something big. Would NASA hide proof of anomalous transmissions? Is something strange afoot with Opportunity?
Probably not. Still, with every strange signal or anomalous transmission comes the hope that someday one, just one, will be the one. Will it happen before humankind inevitably nukes itself to radioactive ash?