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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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