Killing Opportunity: Humans Do What Mars Can't

NASA’s Resilient Opportunity Rover Heading to Martian Science Treasure on Feb. 5, 2015.  The rover operates just fine after 11 Years on Mars, despite efforts by Earth-bound budget cutter to “Kill Opportunity!  This brand new view from atop Cape Tribulation was taken just after departing the summit and shows the down slope road ahead to next science destination at Marathon Valley just a few dozen meters away.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3923 (Feb. 5, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Mars Today! NASA’s Resilient Opportunity Rover Heading to Martian Science Treasure on Feb. 5, 2015.
The rover operates just fine after 11 years on Mars, despite efforts by Earth-bound budget cutters to “Kill Opportunity.” This brand new view from atop Cape Tribulation was taken just after departing the summit and shows the down slope road ahead to next science destination at Marathon Valley just a few dozen meters away. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3923 (Feb. 5, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

For the second year running, the Obama Administration is literally proposing to “Kill Opportunity” and stop NASA’s world-renowned Mars Exploration Rover “dead in its tracks” after an astounding 11 years of roving across Martian plains, craters, and mountains where no man or robot has gone before—proving that the Red Planet was indeed once habitable. Under the newly rolled out NASA budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, Opportunity would “cease operations” with funding being “zeroed out.”

“NASA plans to end Opportunity operations by FY 2016,” says the NASA FY 2016 budget document unveiled earlier this week, on Feb. 2. Since the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, her lease on life is less than eight months.

Nevertheless, Opportunity just celebrated her 11th anniversary on the Red Planet on Jan 24, 2015—hot on the heels of having just climbed to the summit of a Martian mountain named Cape Tribulation, after a grueling trek up the steepest slopes. And a science goldmine of buried mineral treasures informing about Martian habitability sits just a few dozen meters away, at Marathon Valley. See her mountaintop view of “Mars Today” in our new photo mosaic above.

Essentially the Obama Administration’s plan amounts to “Killing Opportunity,” along with all the new science discoveries yet to come to expand upon the numerous volumes already written.

Humans would thereby accomplish with the stroke of a pen what over 3,900 straight Sols of operating in the bitterly harsh Martian environment and daily nighttime temperatures plunging to those equivalent to Antarctica have been unable to accomplish with the ever-resilient, human-built Martian robot, ever since the nail-biting touchdown back on Jan. 24, 2004.

Stunning new mountain top view from NASA’s Opportunity rover after reaching summit of Cape Tribulation in January 2015 nearly eleven years after Martian touchdown.  Panoramic scene shows vast expanse of Endeavour Crater from highest mountain rover will ever climb. See rover solar panels at right and wheel tracks at left.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3894, Jan. 6, 2015 and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Stunning new mountain top view from NASA’s Opportunity rover after reaching summit of Cape Tribulation in January 2015, nearly 11 years after Martian touchdown. Panoramic scene shows vast expanse of Endeavour Crater from highest mountain rover will ever climb. See rover solar panels at right and wheel tracks at left. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3894, Jan. 6, 2015 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The six-wheeled rover marked the 11th year on Mars by raising her robotic hand high and proudly displaying the American flag. She was only supposed to last for 90 Martian days, or Sols, but has rolled along for more than a decade longer.

A year ago, the White House proposed to eliminate funding in FY 2015. She would have never reached the mountaintop! Despite those stated intentions, NASA managers somehow fortunately found the funding to continue operations after an independent senior level scientific review in September 2014 gave the rover a grade of “excellent/very good” for ongoing science.

Now it’s been proposed again that funding would be “zeroed out” for the long-lived Opportunity, as well as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in 2016—both of which are operating just fine.

And the planetary science pain doesn’t stop there. The Mars Odyssey orbiter, which relays most of the data from Opportunity and much from Curiosity, would likewise be “zeroed out” in 2017.

11 Years on Mars! New mountain top view from NASA’s Opportunity rover taken on the day of her 11th anniversary exploring the Red Planet on Sol 3911, Jan. 24, 2015 since Martian touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004. The view from atop Cape Tribulation was taken just after departing the summit and shows the down slope road ahead to next science destination at Marathon Valley some 200 meters away.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3911 and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Eleven years on Mars! New mountain top view from NASA’s Opportunity rover taken on the day of her 11th anniversary exploring the Red Planet on Sol 3911, Jan. 24, 2015 since Martian touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004. The view from atop Cape Tribulation was taken just after departing the summit and shows the down slope road ahead to next science destination at Marathon Valley some 200 meters away. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3911 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden outlined the highlights of the FY 2016 budget during his “state of the agency” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Monday, Feb. 2.

Overall, the Obama Administration proposed a NASA budget of $18.5 billion for Fiscal Year 2016, including a half-billion dollar increase over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

The “Journey to Mars” is NASA’s top priority, Bolden says at every stop.

Yet there is not one single dollar allocated to Opportunity or LRO. In FY 2014, Opportunity, LRO, and Odyssey received $14 million, $12.4 million, and $12.3 million respectively.

“It’s true that the ’16 request does zero out funding for Mars Opportunity in 2016 and assumes that it ceases operations,” said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, in a follow-up media budget briefing also on Feb. 2.

There is a glimmer of hope to once again reinstate funding based on last year’s events.

“We will assess on-going Opportunity operations this summer in 2015 and potentially identify funds for the potential continuation of operations for Opportunity,” added Radzanowski. “This is not a guarantee that we will do that.”

Hilltop Panorama Marks Mars Rover's 11th Anniversary. This panorama is the view NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity gained from the top of the "Cape Tribulation" segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover reached this point three weeks before the 11th anniversary of its January 2004 landing on Mars. The component images were taken with Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) during the week after the rover's arrival at the summit on Jan. 6, 2015, Sol 3894. The U.S. flag printed on the rover's rock abrasion tool is intended as a memorial to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Hilltop panorama marks Mars Rover’s 11th anniversary. This panorama is the view NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity gained from the top of the “Cape Tribulation” segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover reached this point three weeks before the 11th anniversary of its January 2004 landing on Mars. The component images were taken with Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam) during the week after the rover’s arrival at the summit on Jan. 6, 2015, Sol 3894. The U.S. flag printed on the rover’s rock abrasion tool is intended as a memorial to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

The robot’s life depends on the science value she returns—as it should. And NASA does need to balance the needs of ongoing versus new missions.

“We will look at continuing operations of those activities and finding ways to fund them if, in fact, they actually are operational by 2016, and the science value does make sense,” Radzanowski indicated.

“You have to make trades between funding new activities and new development of missions that bring new cutting edge science versus taking advantage of something that’s operating well and also providing good science.”

Well the science value has already been investigated in late 2014, when NASA conducted its biannual scientific review of extensions for seven ongoing planetary science missions by a 15 member independent team of scientists: “The 2014 Planetary Senior Review Panel.”

“The presentation to the panel addressed all the questions previously sent to the MER [Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity] team and demonstrated the validity of the proposed extended mission investigations. The adjectival grade for the MER extended mission was Excellent/Very Good for the Guideline budget,” wrote the panel chaired by Clive Neal, Professor of Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

So there is little question about Opportunity’s science value among scientists.

“This extended mission will focus on the orbitally detected phyllosilicate deposits near Endeavour crater, which are considered to represent deposits from the ancient Noachian period. This would represent the first time that such ancient deposits have been analyzed on the Martian surface,” wrote the review panel.

As of today (Feb. 6), Opportunity stands just a few dozen meters away from “the orbitally detected phyllosilicate deposits.”

Here’s what the FY 2016 budget document states about those deposits:

“Opportunity continues to move south along the edge of Endeavour Crater toward a location that evidence from orbital spacecraft indicate may contain a mineral called montmorillonite, which may indicate the past presence of mild, non-acidic water.”

That “mild, non-acidic water” just happens to be the most conducive to the origin of ancient Martian microbes!

Opportunity rovers current location by the summit of Cape Tribulation in late Dec. 2014 on Sol 3884 is shown in this prior panoramic navcam mosaic view looking south along the rim of Endeavour crater on Sol 3309 on May 15, 2013, where she discovered clay minerals at Esperance rock at Cape York. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/ Marco Di Lorenzo

Opportunity rovers current location by the summit of Cape Tribulation in late December 2014 on Sol 3884 is shown in this prior panoramic navcam mosaic view looking south along the rim of Endeavour crater on Sol 3309 on May 15, 2013, where she discovered clay minerals at Esperance rock at Cape York. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/ Marco Di Lorenzo

On the other hand, the White House says the rover is getting old and somewhat feeble.

“After a long, productive mission life, Opportunity has started to show signs of age, including recent problems with its flash memory,” says the NASA FY 2016 budget document.

Indeed there are problems with flash memory. But the resourceful and clever science and engineering team has found effective workarounds, and the rover is regularly driving several times per week—just as she always has been for the last 11 years!

And she reached the mountain summit, too, despite the flash memory issues.

“We’re having difficulties with our aging flash memory, and until we can correct the problem we’re operating the vehicle in a mode that bypasses flash completely,” Prof. Steve Squyres, the rover’s Science Principal Investigator of Cornell University, said exclusively to AmericaSpace.

“I feel really good about that. We managed to reach the summit of Cape Tribulation and take a spectacular panorama of Endeavour Crater there, all without using our flash memory,” Squyres told AmericaSpace.

Furthermore, all this recent climbing in “crippled mode” was accomplished during the most difficult part of the ascent.

“I think this milestone is particularly significant because we accomplished the steepest and hardest parts of it in what we call ‘crippled mode’,” Squyres elaborated.

“It’s the mode of operation that has always been called ‘crippled mode’, but I think we’ve shown that in that mode the rover is not crippled at all … it’s just a bit forgetful.”

Opportunity continues to transmit fascinating high-resolution imagery and data each and every Martian Sol.

“What that means is that after each sol’s activities, any data not downlinked immediately is lost forever. This requires a very different way of operating the vehicle, and the team has mastered it,” Squyres told AmericaSpace.

For proof, just check out the photo mosaics from the summit of Cape Tribulation and Endeavour crater created by the independent image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, as well as official mosaics from NASA.

This map shows the geologic mapping done along the Endeavour crater traverse so far. The image has been turned on its side with north to the left so that it will fit on your screen and still be visible.  Credit: NASA/Larry Crumpler

This map shows the geologic mapping done along the Endeavour crater traverse so far. The image has been turned on its side with north to the left so that it will fit on your screen and still be visible. Credit: NASA/Larry Crumpler

As of today, Feb. 6, Sol 3924, Opportunity’s total odometry is over 26.02 miles (41.88 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004, at Meridiani Planum. That’s nearly a marathon runner’s distance!

The rover has driven an additional 1.7 miles and 2.7 kilometers over the past Fiscal Year!

Not bad for an 11-year-old rover that the White House says “has started to show signs of age.”

On July 27, 2014, the long-lived rover set the “off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 25 miles (40 kilometers) of driving. The previous record was held by the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover,” according to NASA”s Jet Propulsion Laboratory which manages the rover mission.

So far she has snapped over 200,513 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Who and What will “Kill Opportunity”? Will she be permitted to continue her history-making studies that have revolutionized our understanding of the Red Planet and the implications for finding “Life Beyond Earth”?

Stay tuned here for continuing developments from Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars.

Ken Kremer

 

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11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3920 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater heading to Marathon Valley. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is searching for more on the road ahead to Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3920 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater heading to Marathon Valley. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is searching for more on the road ahead to Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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