Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

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