Thursday, February 14, 2019

Good-bye Opportunity


About three weeks ago I wrote about the Curiosity Rover that has been functioning on Mars for six and a half years. Today we say farewell to the Opportunity Rover (2004 – 2018) which was formally pronounced dead at a news conference yesterday. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, said, "I'm standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude to declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it, the Mars Exploration Rover mission as complete."[1]

What a run this little rover had. NASA has a webpage[2]dedicated to the travels and images of this rover from more than fourteen years of roving. It was last heard from on June 10, 2018 when a dust storm caused it to begin to lose the ability to harvest electricity from the sun. Yesterday’s announcement emphasised the technological triumph of this rover staying active far beyond the days of its original 90-Martian-day (90 sols) mission.[3]Of course NASA’s Curiosity Rover is still expected to continue sending back data for the foreseeable future and NASA has plans for a Red Planet: Mars 2020 mission that includes another rover.

So, this Valentine’s Day, we send our love to Oppy, the little Rover who gave us so much more than we asked. We look forward to the next series of explorations of the Martian landscape.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

With God as Our Father


The Bible repeatedly refers to God as father and his followers as his children. Dependent upon our relationships with our earthly parents, this can either be a calming thought or one that leads to tension. Some of us were taught that our heavenly father was mostly a judge who showed his disappointment and anger when we made mistakes. Most of the time when I think of the relationship between father and son, my mind goes to how I feel as an adult, but perhaps the better way to imagine the concept is between a wise father and a very young child. The Bible tells us that God is far superior to humans in reasoning and love (Isaiah 55:8 is only one place we find this truth) and we can readily see that as the creator of this vast universe in which we live, he is far beyond us. When we are mere babes-in-arms or toddlers, and our fathers are given the responsibility to care for our needs and train us up in the ways that we should go, perhaps that is when we are most like the relationship between God the father and we the children.

Pastor Steve McMillan at Bow Valley Christian Church recently used an illustration that points to the truth in this. When a child reaches that age where they begin to walk (usually within a few months of their first birthday) we see the pride of the father in the child. The child manages to get up and hold onto some piece of furniture and walks along it before coming to the end of safety. At some point, they must launch out on their own and so they stretch a leg and arm out and take those first halting steps. Soon the awkwardness of legs, body, and heavy head get in the way and the child thumps down on the forgiving cushion of a nicely padded bottom. At this point we don’t see the father berate the child for falling. We don’t hear him say, “What is wrong with you? You only took three steps!” No, instead the father is ecstatic. He cheers the babe on and says, “Wonderful, you did so well. You took three steps before falling." He pulls out his cell phone and tries to capture the next steps on video. He calls his wife into the room and says, “Honey, come in here quick, see what our daughter has just done!” He calls his parents on the phone and acts like his child is the most brilliant and coordinated child on the planet. He jumps around and hoots like a mad-man, all because this child took three steps and fell hard.

So too, our heavenly father is more interested in the steps we take than in the many times we fall. Sure, he does not want to see us fall and get hurt; there is pain in his heart when he sees us scrape our knees and bruise our muscles. Yet, he is more interested in the fact that we actually walked for a while. He is there to encourage us to get up, wince at the pain, bandage the scrapes, and get moving again. Fathers do not worry about the falls. Certainly, if the child keeps falling for the next several years there may be something wrong and the father intervenes to find a way to help the son walk, but that is not the usual case. 

So, what of my life here on this earth? Am I focussed on how many times I fall or on how much progress I am making? I would do well to set myself some goals and aim toward them rather than focussing on the time I spend on the ground. My heavenly father is certainly looking at foot-steps and progress, otherwise he could not be my loving father at all.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Six and a Half Years of Curiosity


About six and a half years ago on August 6, 2012, I got up early to watch NASA TV as they broadcast the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. I remember the significant tension of this particular landing because NASA was employing some new technology that had never been used before. They used the usual heat-shield to brake through the upper atmosphere, then deployed parachutes to slow the lander even more. But, what was novel about this landing was the use of a “sky crane” which NASA engineers dubbed, "seven minutes of terror." The Curiosity Rover was much heavier than other craft that had been landed on Mars and so the usual airbag crash would not protect the heavy rover well enough. The sky crane was a rocket-powered descent device that separated itself from the Curiosity Rover with a bridle of three cables and an umbilical cord which allowed the sky crane and rover to communicate with each other. After separating from the rover but remaining attached by the cables, the sky crane fired its rockets to allow for a gentle descent to the surface. Once the rover was gently landed on the ground of Mars, Curiosity communicated this via the umbilical cord so that the sky crane could cut the cables and fly far away to crash elsewhere on the surface of Mars. Won’t humans one day have fun when we finally do travel to Mars and see the various landing and crash sites of such vehicles as the sky crane, Mars 2 (a Russian craft that crashed hard on Mars and did not respond to calls from earth), Viking 1 and Viking 2 (NASA landers that did manage to send back data to earth), Mars Polar Lander (a failed NASA lander), and Spirit (active from 2004 to 2010) and Opportunity Rovers (active 2004 to 2018 when a dust storm forced it into hibernation) two more successful NASA landings? 

What I find amazing is that the Curiosity Rover that I sat watching as it landed in 2012 is still active on the planet, roving over the surface and doing science. And of course, Opportunity Rover holds the record so far for the longest rover mission on the Red Planet. These technological feats of engineering stagger the mind. Once a rover has successfully landed on Mars it must then survive dust-storms that foul moving parts and cloud over solar power systems. Yet these rovers grind on in the cold. The average temperature on the planet is estimated to be around −63 °C, with highs of 20 °C and lows near −153 °C. To be sure, it is not a very hospitable place for a rover.

Yet NASA and other space agencies continue to plan more missions to Mars. Hope Mars 2020 is a United Arab Emirates launch scheduled for July of 2020, Mars 2020 Rover, a NASA venture, will collect samples that will be returned to earth by a later vehicle, and the Exo-Mars Rover 2020 which is a joint effort of the European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos Agency, will also land in 2020. Japan and China also currently have plans to land landers in 2020 and the Indian Space Research Organization plans to land on Mars in 2022. It seems that all of the nations of the world are involved in this space-race to begin the process of colonizing Mars.

NASA, in collaboration with SpaceX and other private space companies have plans to put humans on Mars by 2033. Other countries around the world are making their own target dates for when they anticipate landing humans on Mars. In the 15 years from 2020 to 2035, what will this kind of competition and cooperation look like? Will this contribute to world peace or add fuel to many world-wide conflicts. Let us pray that the space race may truly be used to satisfy human curiosity rather than human greed. Here's to many more years of Curiosity!