If machines could ever think and feel like their human creators, the Mars rover Venturer would probably say on a day like today, "Ho-hum. Another day, another dollar."
It was dawn on Mars. As the sun rose above the hills of the great Valles Marineris canyon, illuminating the rust-colored landscape in a brilliant array of golden light, Venturer came to life the moment the sun's rays reached its solar panels atop the vehicle. It had rested there during the night behind a large rock at the mouth of the canyon on its southernmost tip, parked there for safekeeping by its operators back at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Once its systems were up and running to full capacity, it trodded forward into the canyon.
Venturer was the third in JPL's fleet of exploratory rovers sent to the red planet, six months behind Spirit and almost a year behind Opportunity. Even though Mars was almost half the size of Earth, there was overall a lot of ground to cover. It was the smallest of the three rovers, about the size of a child's radio-controlled toy car, built from processed titanium alloys. It was loaded with sensors mimicking four of the five human senses: touching, smelling, hearing and seeing, which sampled everything from the quality of the Martian air--about ninety percent carbon dioxide and ten percent nitrogen--to the porousness of the rocks and boulders. High-density 360-degree cameras with pan, tilt and zoom lenses documented every step of Venturer's travels, transmitting the data over ten million miles back to Earth, where its operators pieced together the awe-inspring photos into stunning mosaics of this strange new world as yet untouched by man.
Many from the old school of space exploration, namely the astronauts of the old Apollo and space shuttle missions, argued that the rovers were poor substitutes for the daringness of the human spirit that fathered the quest for space in the first place. "Why bother sending astronauts," they complained, "when robots can do all the work?"
But there would be plenty of time for this ancient majestic frontier to fall under the stampede of human feet. Plenty of time to excavate, carve and cut away pieces of the land to make way for towns and cities, and atmospheric plants to breathe man-made life into this dead world. Plenty of time to litter and pollute the landscape with trash and newspapers blowing in the Martian wind. Plenty of time to pave a highway through this magnificent canyon so one day millions of tourists driving their cars and trucks through can clog the atmosphere with their exhaust fumes and ignore it's splendor.
Plenty of time, indeed.
A few miles into the canyon, Venturer stopped at the base of one of the giant rock cliffs to bore a sample for testing. The only sound around for miles, other than that of the wind blowing through, was the whirr of of its drill. One good thing about rovers was, in a situation liek this, anticipating the unknown in a world of complete desolation such as Mars would give a human explorer a severe case of the heebie-jeebies. But fear was never in a rover's programming.
It was almost finished when its sensors picked up movement on one of the nearby hillsides. It stopped drilling and moved back a few feet, panning its camera toward the upper slope. About fifty feet above, some rocks rolled down the slope. Not enough for an avalanche. But peculiar.
Venturer slowly panned the camera from the farthest left to the farthest right of the slope, zooming in toward the source of the movement. Its heat sensors picked up a source near a boulder. The image zoomed in further and revealed a dark shape sitting on top of a boulder. It resembled a human form, flexing an arm about chest high as if it were scratching its armpit. Venturer monitored it for over five minutes but it hadn't moved a muscle. The rover than snapped a picture and moved further on down the valley floor.
The picture, once it reached the JPL lab back on Earth, would be left for its team of scientists and visual technicians to pore over thoroughly. All the evidence, the data from the heat sensors and the image from the photo, gave a very likely possibility that the image might be a form of intelligent life.
But that was not for Venturer to judge as it continued on with its programmed function of mapping and prospecting Mars. It was only a machine, nothing more.
Once the rover went out of sight beyond the cliffs, the shape stood up from the boulder and walked further across the slope of the hillside.