As a sign of strength, dignity and remembrance, two Mars rovers carry quiet tributes to those who died during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the fact that both of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have an instrument containing aluminum collected from the downed World Trade Center towers was revealed in 2004 — shortly after the robotic pair began their epic missions on the alien world — NASA has reminded the us that the legacy lives on, 10 years after that tragic day.
What’s more, these extraterrestrial robotic tributes could survive for millions of years in the Martian environment.
The story began at a company called Honeybee Robotics, based in Lower Manhattan, that was tasked with manufacturing the drilling tools designed to allow NASA’s Mars rovers to grind the surface layers off Martian rocks and analyze their composition.
Striving to complete their work before Spirit’s and Opportunity’s launch window in 2003, work at the company stopped abruptly at 8:46 a.m., on Sept. 11, 2001. That was when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, only a short distance from Honeybee. Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 collided with the South Tower.
The impact of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania reverberated around the world and changed the course of history.
In the weeks following the attacks, Steve Kondos, a JPL engineer working with Honeybee Robotics, suggested the twin rovers could become interplanetary memorials to remember those who died. Sure enough, after working with the New York Mayor’s office, the team was able to acquire a piece of aluminum debris from the towers.
The material was then machined to become cable shields for the rock abrasion tools to be attached to the rovers. The American flag was then printed on the sides of the two cable shields (as seen in the photograph above).
“It’s gratifying knowing that a piece of the World Trade Center is up there on Mars. That shield on Mars, to me, contrasts the destructive nature of the attackers with the ingenuity and hopeful attitude of Americans,” said Stephen Gorevan, Honeybee founder and chairman, and a member of the Mars rover science team.
Although Spirit’s mission has now come to an end, Opportunity continues to explore Mars, having recently arrived at the vast Endeavour Crater.
Regardless of where Opportunity ends up, Mars will have two memorials signifying the events of 9/11. Also, due to the cold and dry Martian environment, the cable shields should remain preserved on the Red Planet for millions of years.
Image: The piece of metal with the American flag on it in this image of a NASA rover on Mars is made of aluminum recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers in the weeks after their destruction. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University