The Little Rover That Did

For the past few days my feed has been saturated by people getting very upset about an anthropomorphised robot. Not gonna lie, when Oppy first went dark last summer, I got slightly sniffly too.
But the emotive quote that everyone is using — “My batteries are low and it’s getting dark” — is not *actually* what the rover transmitted. That’s just how the science reporter Jacob Margolis described it on Twitter.
I’ve seen all sorts of bizarre comments about artificial intelligence and so on over the past few days. Hey, don’t get me wrong, machine learning is cool! But, we aren’t quite at the state where we should be crying over dying Martian robots just yet. The achievements of Spirit and Opportunity are fantastic, and should be widely celebrated.
But, in the end, it was a manmade machine. It didn’t even “die” a few days ago, as so many people seem to think.
In June 2018 there was a huge dust storm on Mars, the biggest in a decade. Oppy’s solar panels (presumably) got covered in dust. Some of its last photographs were of the sun, seen from the surface of Mars, gradually disappearing into the dust storm. In the last images it sent back, the sun wasn’t even visible.
And, you know, it was operated by solar panels… hence the quip from Jacob Margolis.
Opportunity lost contact with NASA around that point. There was hope that the windy season might blow dust off the surface, allowing its operators to re-establish contact. But on Feb 13th, after over 1000 attempts at connecting with the rover, the team declared the mission dead. There’s a great article about it — along with highlights from its mission — here.
Opportunity was designed to work for 90 days, and instead operated for 15 years. It’s amazing. The body of information that it has passed to us is fantastic.
But, no, it didn’t send a heartfelt, emotive message from the surface of another world. So for the people who seem genuinely upset (and I’ve come across more than a few) you can put the tissues away… for now.

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