Requiem for a Space Traveler

Today we heard news from NASA that confirms what we had feared for the past few weeks: Mars Global Surveyor appears to be dead. The agency hasn't communicated with the spacecraft since November 2nd. The mission team is not giving up all hope on its intrepid orbiter, but it does not expect to re-establish contact.

I hope major newspapers, magazines, and websites emphasize the spectacular success of the mission, and don't convey the impression that this is yet another NASA failure. Just like the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, MGS was not supposed to live this long, and it has exceeded its minimum design lifetime five times over. And oh by the way, the MGS mission revolutionized our view of Mars.

I would develop carpal tunnel syndrome if I had to list all of MGS's accomplishments, so to save my fingers and wrists, let me name just a few. The high-resolution camera has greatly added to our knowledge of Mars's geologic and climate history by returning spectacular images from all over the planet, showing layered polar deposits, volcanic structures, and narrow features carved by water. The infrared spectrometer has monitored the global climate and found evidence for deposits of the mineral hematite (which forms in liquid water on Earth) in the Meridiani Planum region, paving the way for Opportunity’s great discoveries. The magnetometer found indications that the Red Planet had plate tectonics and a global magnetic field in its early history. The laser altimeter mapped the entire planet to a vertical resolution of less than a meter, meaning we have a far better topographic map for Mars than we do for Earth (the ocean floors have not been mapped to such high resolution).

For obvious reasons, orbiters have less "sex appeal" than landers and rovers. So MGS has been quietly conducting science operations from Mars orbit for 9 years while the rovers basked in the limelight. Fortunately, the loss of MGS does not herald the loss of science from Mars orbit. NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are returning impressive images and data, and the European Space Agency's Mars Express continues to dazzle with its high-quality spectral data and 3-D color images.

The entire MGS mission cost American taxpayers only $377 million. When divided by 300 million people and the 10 years that the mission flew in space, that works out to an average of about 12.5 cents per year per US citizen. I think it's safe to say we got our money's worth.