Top NASA managers are actively working to save the long-lived but fiscally imperiled Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover (MER) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions from the budget cutters’ axe and “keep those missions moving,” after funding for both spacecraft was “zeroed out” under the White House’s recently rolled out NASA budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016.
“Our intention is to find a way to keep Opportunity and LRO moving,” said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C., in an exclusive one-on-one interview with AmericaSpace.
“Right now we’re really in a good position to save LRO and Opportunity. We are.”
“We’re in a good position. But that doesn’t mean we solved the funding problem yet,” Green cautioned. And much work remains in the months ahead to succeed.
Because saving Opportunity and LRO also depends on what Congress finally decides about NASA’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget. Those budgetary decisions are still some time off, and there are no guarantees!
And it’s well worth “Saving Opportunity” rather than “Killing Opportunity” because right now she’s poised to quite possibly accomplish the most fundamental breakthrough science spanning her entire 11-year career from her current perch atop a Martian mountain at Cape Tribulation along the rim of humongous Endeavour crater.
Furthermore, Opportunity received the top grades for all Mars missions after an independent senior level scientific review in September 2014 gave the rover a grade of “excellent/very good” for ongoing science.
The six-wheeled rover will need to drive downward, into an area called “Marathon Valley,” to reach the science booty—detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) soaring overhead—that could shed light on Mars’ watery past and its potential habitability.
So it’s going to take some time and several months to descend from the mountain top at Cape Tribulation, to do its work, and to get the data.
Under the White House proposal for 2016, their plan announced that both Opportunity and LRO would “cease operations” by the end of the fiscal year in September 2015, as detailed in this recent AmericaSpace story.
“The cost to operate Opportunity was about $14 million during 2014 and the cost for LRO was about $20 million,” Green stated to AmericaSpace.
On the mind-boggling occasion of the renowned rover’s 4000th Sol of science explorations on the Red Planet, AmericaSpace interviewed Jim Green, who has led NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division since 2006, at length on a range of topics including the fate of Opportunity and LRO.
On Jan. 24, 2015, Opportunity accomplished the unfathomable achievement of celebrating her 11th anniversary of exploration, discovery, and survival on Mars since the dramatic touchdown way back, on Jan. 24, 2004.
And right now, the rover has arrived at the gateway to the “alien scenes” of Marathon Valley, which holds significant deposits of water-altered clay minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.
Opportunity could possibly be at a point favorable to the formation of life. But she’s located at the top of the mountain right now, exploring around “Spirit of St. Louis Crater” and the entrance to Marathon Valley. And the phyllosilicates clay caches are down in the valley of Endeavour crater.
The mountain summit at the Cape Tribulation segment of Endeavour crater stands about 440 feet (135 meters) above the local plains around the crater. Vast Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
You can check out the views from Opportunity on Mars today in our exclusive photo mosaics herein, assembled from raw images snapped by the rover and created by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
And it will take some months for the rover to descend down and do it very carefully, without slipping and sliding. So she needs time, maybe many months to carry out initial observations and maybe years to conduct a thorough science campaign around the region it’s in now, because the clays are distributed over a wider area.
Therefore, the science can’t possibly be completed in a few days.
“Finding money isn’t going to be done in a day either!” said Green.
So there is ample scientific justification to keep both Opportunity and LRO funded and functioning for years to come, so long as they continue operating.
“We are on a path to save Opportunity and LRO. We know what we need to do. We have done it before,” Green elaborated. “But it’s going to depend also on what Congress does.”
In the past, when NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division received a somewhat bigger slice of NASA’s slim budget, it was easier to continue funding ongoing missions that were still scientifically productive but survived longer than anticipated and required mission extensions to continue operating past the primary mission phase.
That all changed back in 2012, when Green’s $1.5 billion budget allocation for NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division was dealt a severe cut of $370 million in one fell swoop.
“In Fiscal Year 2012, I had a $370 million cut,” Green explained. “So it’s very hard to deal with that type of a cut.”
“So either you end a mission or keep the ball in the air. We chose to keep the ball in the air.”
So Green and his team are working to figure out a funding source.
“When our budget goes down, we are even cutting things that we had money for in the past, that we no longer have money for. So we have to look for money we didn’t expect to have to look for, since the rover keeps surviving [year after year]. That put things in a precarious position.”
Help from Congress and the public is really the key to the survival of Opportunity and LRO.
“Its only recently that Congress is starting to realize and appreciate the value of what we do in planetary science and restore our budget.”
“So we are trying to not kill things. We are trying to keep as many balls in the air as we can. And then find a way to fund the missions.”
How will Green and NASA try and work some budget miracles?
“Our plan is to look across the budget and find some savings. Then we go through an operational plan change. We’ll move the money out of areas that are going well and then forward fund the money into Opportunity and LRO to keep them going into the next year.”
But it will take time. And no final decisions will be taken until later this year. A lot has to do with actions taken by Congress. But Green and NASA are already working to formulate plans under various funding scenarios, with and without assistance from Congress.
“So at the end of the year we’ll step back and look at our budget situation in 2015. We’ll look at how much money we need to reprogram to keep them going.”
“If Congress comes through and provides us additional funding then there is no problem. Then they have rescued us so to speak. But if that does not happen – and we can’t count on that – then what we do is we look at how much we can afford to forward fund them.”
Another option is to continue the missions, but at reduced funding levels.
“So in that situation, then we’ll work with the individual projects and ask them what kind of operational scenarios can you have with this amount of money.”
Right now the missions have funding to continue their research investigations through the end of this fiscal year. So they’ll continue operating as already planned.
Therefore, all eyes are focused on keeping Opportunity and LRO scientifically productive and ensuring that NASA’s newly arrived “Icy Worlds” missions of Dawn at Ceres and the upcoming July 14 flyby encounter of New Horizons at the Pluto system will deliver the most productive science possible.
So the final budget analysis is going to happen in the July-September timeframe, after the New Horizons encounter at Pluto.
Green has faced many difficult programmatic choices during his tenure. Last year Cassini was on the budget chopping block.
“There have been a number of missions like that, where I had the ball in the air.”
“Last year I didn’t have any money for Cassini – until I found it at the last minute.”
“Give it some time and let me solve the funding,” Green elaborated.
So it’s also up to you, too, readers out there!
If you want to help save Opportunity, LRO, and other science and exploration missions and feel NASA’s budget should be maintained or increased, then show you care. Contact your Congressperson and Senators. Make your voices heard!
When it comes to our future in space … failure is not an option!
As of today, Sol 4005 (April 30, 2015), Opportunity’s total odometry is over 26.25 miles (42.24 kilometers), since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004, at Meridiani Planum—exceeding a marathon runner’s distance!
Opportunity has snapped over 202,928 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments from Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars.
Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace