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Spooky Sols

by Patrick Woida

September 05, 2008 -
I'm almost getting used to the kind of spooky environment here at the Science Operations Center in Tucson. So VERY different than the primary mission. We've got extended mission, Earth time, and distributed operations. Nearly all the people who joined us in Tucson from around the world have now headed back home to sleep in their own beds after 3+ months here.

So, when meetings start, in a room that seldom held fewer than 80 people, now has maybe a dozen gathered around the table. Disembodied voices come over the speakers. As you look, computers are operating on their own, no bodies in the chair as the team does remote ops. Very strange after all the intense months, chasing Mars around the clock, isolated from all those on Earth by strange hours and activities. At times, now there is almost ghost town feel with so few here in the flesh and so much happening out of sight.

There's a touch of melancholy, as fall comes to Mars and I begin to deeply miss those people I have grown so close to at the start of our expedition. I can see it the faces of the others around me, they feel it too.

Of course to offset the blues, on Mars the clouds are rolling in now. We can find frost collecting on mirrors. The sun actually sets and rises. There's new results to discuss everyday. Change is coming not just to us, but to the Martian arctic as well. To balance the loss of my friends, I'm getting a chance to get re-acquainted with my kids, who have learned to function without me during the long days and nights of summer. My youngest who always had to wait on me for a ride, is now scootering about on his own. My daughter started at U of A last week. I've spent more time with her over the last 10 days than I have for the summer. To their credit, the kids did try and follow me around the clock as I lived on Mars time. With the jumps back and forth, they had trouble keeping up. The routine of their returning to school compliments my transition back to the ordinary world.

On days like today, it feels much more like Phoenix has hit her prime, not past it. People are obviously more energized after functioning under perpetual "jet-lag" for months. Instead of the mission having ended, we are off on a new adventure. During the fair days of the summer, little changed allowing us to deal with digging activities while Mars held its breath, giving us of a snapshot in time. Now we have a dynamic planet and weather to deal with and experience.

The excitement helps to dispel the feelings that working again on an Earth-time schedule with a team working remotely is so weird. After all, with millions of miles between us and Mars, it shouldn't matter too much where you work the last few hundred :-)

So we plow onto conjunction. In mid-November, the Earth has raced ahead so far of Mars, that the sun comes between us and Mars, cutting off our communication with Phoenix. Our little robot takes a long winter nap while the planets roll around their orbits and Earth and Mars have a line of site again. What happens once the sun is out of the way remains to be seen. Until then, we will make the next few months as memorable as the first.