The Opportunity rover lasted 15 years and traversed more than 28 miles on the surface of Mars. A dust storm lead to a loss of communication with it.
It’s been a rough week for those of us assigned the mission of tracking alternative facts — or long-form, self-serving fiction, as the more poetical among us might call it. From the border “emergency” nonsense (proving only that West Wing security has effectively kept Stephen Miller and the facts concerning immigration at a considerable distance) to the 25th Amendment hysteria (if senior officials discussed the president’s competency and then rejected taking action, doesn’t that mean it worked effectively to avoid a political coup rather than precipitate one?), the fact-checking arena has been a darn depressing place of late. And that’s not even counting a certain b-list TV actor Chicago police now claim did a little unwelcome hate-crime street performance in the Windy City and got the attention he craved — along with an arrest.
So it comes as something of a relief that every once in a while — quite a long while, actually — we run across a serious distortion of reality that we think ought to stand unchallenged. Not because it’s true. Not because it can’t be disproven. And not necessarily because it speaks to a higher truth or some nonsense like that. Maybe, just maybe, there are moments in which mythology ought to be allowed to stand. Or to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, when the lie should be allowed to become legend by attaining the “dignity of age.”
We speak, of course, of the following quote that has swept through social media like WALL-E and ET had a baby and left it stranded on the fourth planet from the sun: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” That’s been widely attributed as the final transmission of the Mars rover — also known as “Opportunity” — which ended its mission of more than 14 years on the Red Planet last week. If that sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it is. Martian robotic explorers don’t talk like that.
But as the fact-checkers at Snopes and others have observed, the rover did communicate to its handlers within NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission that its battery was low. And it did, at least at some point in the same transmission, note that the Martian skies were growing unusually dark (because of a dust storm). Both observations were included in what NASA described as its last downlink before going into the robot equivalent of hibernation from which it did not wake. So those who later wrote about what happened took some license, and then those who got their information from those reports took some more and on and on. Well, you know how the internet works.
So what was the actual final transmission? It was probably something along the lines of “011001010001111010110...” and you get the idea. But how much cooler is it to imagine this little solar-powered robot summed up its lonely life on a distant rock by stoically contemplating its own mortality? We are all destined to a low-battery alert, a growing darkness and a permanent hibernation, aren’t we? Can’t we begrudge our artificially intelligent helpers the same destiny?
We can’t explain it, but there’s something oddly comforting about imagining that Opportunity had a soul or at least a touch of self-awareness. That’s complete piffle, of course. What was left on the Endeavor Crater was just a bunch of memory circuits, instruments, sensors, cameras, solar arrays and assorted metal parts. To think otherwise is the worst kind of romanticism not unlike anthropomorphizing your pets. And yet we wouldn’t begrudge a reader for shedding a tear on behalf of “Oppy.” May it forever rest offline in peace — at least until Matt Damon shows up as a stranded astronaut to borrow some spare parts.