Given the distance involved, there had never existed any hope to remotely pilot the rover. The small six-wheeled vehicle was programmed to forge a path through this frozen place, while using three cameras to photograph the vast white expanses surrounding the lander.
Photographs captured by the rover would first be relayed to the lander. An array on the lander had the capacity to communicate the images back home. The enormity of space required that visions of this extraterrestrial winterscape travel many light-years, not arriving until long after the rover ceased to function.
Despite the apparent cold, this particular planet existed within the habitable zone of main sequence star. Data collected by the lander and rover, no matter how scant, may determine this world deserved a closer consideration in the never-ending search for life in the cosmos, or, perhaps more importantly, the discovery of specific qualities may well earmark this far-flung planet for future colonization.
A shrill wind immediately forced the heating units on the rover to activate. Solar panels mounted to the rover charged these units and powered motors that propelled the wheels. A single hathium cytrate battery enabled the cameras to function. Once that battery was exhausted, the rover would wonder blindly as a handful of far more trivial instruments monitored atmospheric and meteorological conditions for as long as possible.
Wasting no opportunities, the rover computer immediately resolved to begin snapping photographs while the alloy wheels rolled over ancient snow and ice. The lander directed the rover toward an interesting feature in the distance: an active volcano. Extraterrestrial volcanism was always a worthwhile subject of investigation, and the appearance of the smoking mountain in an otherwise barren, harsh world seemed as reasonable a location to search for life as any other visible point.
As the rover slowly rolled toward the towering slope in the distance, blowing snow periodically threatened the solar panels. If the panels were ever to be covered, the small craft would cease to move.
Fortune proved supportive of discovery, as the very gusts that brought the snow also later cleared the panels.
Whenever the whiteout conditions relented, the host star shined brightly, allowing the rover to frantically snap photographs.
Such dazzling sunlight piqued sensors on the rover to scan for liquid water. With such consistent heat, the extremities of the enormous glaciers that dominated the surface surely periodically melted.
Although the wind refused to abate, the diminutive rover approached the lowest levels of the volcano’s mighty form. A great plume of smoke emitting from the caldera was captured from the rover’s cameras and communicated to the lander.
The rover now faced a nearly impossible challenge: scaling the towering flanks to the summit. Great cavern systems or pools of primordial magma could easily be discovered and assessed in route. Of course, that was highly unlikely, but the potential for discovery was too great.
Rebecca Jameson and Todd Werth, American volcanologists from McMurdo Station, watched as a tiny vehicle crossed the McMurdo Sound roughly fifty meters from their field camp at the base of Mt. Erebus, the most southerly active volcano on Earth.
“What the hell is that?” Rebecca asked. She pointed a gloved hand directly at the contraption that resembled little more than an expensive remote-controlled car.
“I have no idea,” Todd replied, “and I don’t see anyone else around.” He casually approached the rover and carefully lifted the craft with both hands. The six wheels underneath whizzed and whirled once losing contact with the ice.
“Not one of ours,” Todd observed. “I’ve never seen us use a rover this small.”
“Maybe we should call over to Scott and ask if they lost one?” Rebecca asked, referring to a nearby research station.
“Yeah,” Todd said, “I guess we should. Odd that one would be just wondering around. I’ve heard of penguins doing that but never a rover.”
Rebecca smiled and reached out to touch one of the hurriedly spinning and turning wheels when Todd approached.
“Noisy little thing,” she laughed. “But I think ours are just as temperamental.”
“Let’s go,” Todd chuckled in reply. “I’m sure whoever this belongs to will want it back.”