Dispatches from the International Robotic Explorers League

Since no one was brave enough to venture a guess for the last trivia question, it is up to me to put in a plug for the excellent anime series from earlier this decade known as “Cowboy Bebop.” Among other aspects of a Solar System-spanning human civilization, it gave us one glimpse of what the space debris problem might lead to if we let it build up unchecked. It was also a damn good series, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys good science fiction and does not mind some of the cliches of the anime genre.

Earlier this week I watched as my beloved Minnesota Twins once again flamed out in the first round of the MLB playoffs to a Yankees team that overmatched them by a fair margin. But while baseball will always be foremost in my sports hierarchy, I am always glad to turn my attentions to football, and this is where the inspiration for today’s topic originates. Some years ago, I was searching for some music on the internet and came across a collection called “Selections from Autumn Thunder: 40 Years of NFL Films Music.” Even if you are not a football fan, I imagine most of you would recognize some of the music, as well as the trademark style of NFL Films (slow-motion, baritone narration, relentless optimism) simply because of how often they have been adapted for wider use in pop culture, primarily advertising. After downloading a few of the more interesting tracks, I began thinking of how I might be able to get them into Space Week somehow, and the IREL, that is the International Robotic Explorers League, was born.

Download some of the tracks from “Selections from Autumn Thunder: 40 Years of NFL Films Music” or just listen to the previews and imagine that John Facenda is narrating this story.

Consisting of the many and varied robotic spacecraft exploring our Solar System and parts beyond, the IREL soldiers on tirelessly, often in obscurity and in conditions that would make even the most hardy of human beings question their resolve, all to provide us with the data necessary to enhance our understanding of the Universe. They may only be robots, but they give every ounce of circuitry in the service of completing their missions, in many cases going above and beyond the call of duty to return useful measurements long after their designed operational lifetimes. Join me now as we take a look around the league.

The Martian rover team of Spirit and Opportunity continues to study the surface of the red planet’s equatorial region, though well into their sixth years of operation, they are beginning to show their age. Opportunity recently finished an in-depth study of a meteorite named Shelter Island and is on route to its next target. It has now logged over ten miles of total driving and remains in good health. Spirit, unfortunately, has had a rougher go of it. Earlier this year one of its wheels became stuck in the Martian soil, and it has yet to be dislodged. Engineers have been hard at work testing a number of different strategies with a twin rover back on Earth, but nothing has worked yet. Also, due to the vagaries of Martian weather and the buildup of dust on the solar panels, Spirit’s power reserves are much less than its counterpart halfway around the world. Can they both hold on until their replacement, the Mars Science Laboratory, arrives in 2012? Stranger things have happened.

Moving outward to Saturn, we find Cassini now into the second year of its “Equinox” extended mission, so named due to the fact that one of Saturn’s two equinoxes occurred a couple of months ago. At these two points during its almost 30-year orbit, the tilt of Saturn is such that its rings are invisible for a brief time to earthbound observers. Speaking of rings, did you hear we found a new one? (More on that later.) In addition to continuing observation of the planet itself, its two favorite flyby targets are the moons Titan and Enceladus. With its rivers and lakes (of methane), vast deserts, mountains and volcanoes (of ice), the surface of Titan continues to fascinate. Recent observations of rain and other atmospheric phenomena reinforce how similar to our own world Titan is, yet also make clear the differences.

The icy moon Enceladus is now thought to have, like Jupiter’s Europa, a globe-spanning subsurface ocean of indeterminate depth, and several flybys are planned to collect further evidence of what is now only hinted at. Finally, one of the less heralded instruments on Cassini, the Ion and Neutral Camera, recently helped us to completely rethink our image of the heliosphere, the region of space carved out by the Sun’s solar wind. Previously, it was thought to be egg-shaped: as the Sun traveled around the center of the galaxy the leading edge would be the rounded egg bottom, and the trailing edge being the tapering cone. Thanks to the Cassini data, the heliosphere is now thought to be an actual sphere.

Now what’s that about a new ring of Saturn? That is only the most recent discovery of the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that, along with the Hubble, is part of NASA’s Great Observatories program. More of a doughnut than a ring, this new feature is immense but diffuse, with most of the material being supplied by the moon Phoebe. Since it began service in 2003, Spitzer has also studied countless star forming regions in our galaxy, looking for the telltale disks that are the precursor to what may become a planetary system. Supernova remnants have also been a favorite target, as seeing them in infrared gives us more clues about the elements created during those cataclysmic events.

These are just some of the standouts of the IREL, a group that includes Kepler, Dawn, Mercury MESSENGER, New Horizons, SOHO, and the ageless Voyagers. While we only have enough time to check up on a few of them, you can rest assured that they will continue to make fascinating discoveries that further our knowledge of the great dark beyond.

Thank you, and good night.

Mars Exploration Rovers
Cassini Equinox Mission
Spitzer Space Telescope
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where you can keep track of all the latest IREL action.

Norman Barrett Wiik as a current graduate student in public policy, a board member for Camp Quest of Minnesota and Camp Quest Inc., and a lifelong enthusiast of space exploration.

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