Monday 5 January 2004

It is very cool that Spirit has successfully landed and seems fully functional. As an engineer, I’m impressed by the ability to build something complex like this, throw it a couple of hundred million miles, and then work it by remote control. It also must take enormous patience: the rover won’t start moving for more than a week, and when it does, it will travel a few inches per hour.

Matt Croydon has a good collection of links to other sites about Spirit.

On Science Friday, a pair of JPL scientists were taking call-in questions. One caller made two points. The first was an interesting scientific problem: what if the life on Mars is so different from ours that our tests for life don’t detect it? The second was more out there: considering so many landings on Mars have failed, maybe it’s the landers that approach populated areas that are being shot out of the sky, and only missions that approach deserted areas that succeed. The two scientists didn’t have any good answers.


I think the phrase is "didn't dignify them with an answer". The easy answer to the second question is that engineering errors were found that explained several, if not all, of the recent failures (the landing-rocket-turn-off sensor that wasn't cleared before testing comes to mind); as for one of the earliest failed mars probes (a voyager 2 era russian unit), a command line typo caused loss of control.

As for the life question, the probes aren't looking for philosophically abstract life :-) That's a media short cut, it is probably more helpful to say that they're looking for evidence of specific biological processes. Failing to find them in one spot *isn't* a significant discovery - finding them, of course, would be immense [even if it means "contimination from voyager survived 30 years and traveled thousands of miles".]
I agree in general, but listen when the scientists talk. They make assumptions galore, including the idea that life requires liquid water to exist. I still think they are likely to be able to recognize biological processes, but that is because I hare their assumptions, not because they aren't making assumptions.
Sylvain Galineau 3:06 PM on 16 Jan 2004
I agree. In the past couple of decades, life has been found on Earth in places where it was assumed to be impossible for life to even survive, let alone thrive. Because our planet is all we know, the kind of life we have here is bound to color our assumptions of what forms life can take. And the places where we look for it.

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