An Opportunity Lost – NASA threatens shutdown of Opportunity Rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Cassandra Vella/Staff Reporter

NASA is looking to shut down the Opportunity Mars rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter after working long past their planned
life expectancies. The Opportunity rover reached its eleventh year on Mars on Jan. 24, 2015. The original mission launched in 2003 and had been designed to last ninety days. After working eleven years on Mars, Opportunity has been having some technical issues with its flash memory drive.

On Monday, Feb. 1, 2015, the Obama administration released their spending proposal, which did not include spending money available for the Opportunity rover. This is to be taking place during the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2016. Opportunity’s mission will not be funded in the White House’s budget for 2015. Fortunately, NASA managed to find enough funding that gained the mission a two-year extension.

Back in December, Opportunity showed its eleven-year wear and tear when it stopped communicating with ground control. The non-volatile flash memory that the craft operates with overnight to store data is the issue currently concerning NASA. This flash memory has a limited capacity for how many times it can rewrite data on its flash memory setup, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is looking to create a permanent solution. When the rover does not use its flash memory, it downloads every day’s photographs and data before the overnight mode begins. In order to repair the mechanism, the engineers may have to tinker with the flight software of the rover.

After any damages are repaired and tested fully, the rover will be put back into some extensive testing. If the results from the rover show its original optimal performance, the mission could be renewed. NASA will still be working on funding the mission as it had this last year, which may keep the mission going.

Throughout January, Opportunity showed its performance was still perfectly operable without its flash memory. On Jan. 6, 2015, the rover reached the top of a fourteen-mile wide crater’s ridge, “Cape Tribulation,” and reported usual data and photographs without flash memory. The rover’s next objective is a valley that scientists have spotted minerals that may have had water exposure before from satellite images. This valley, ”Marathon Valley,” got its name because Opportunity will have travelled the same length of a marathon on Mars by the time it arrives there. Opportunity has reported over twenty-six miles of driving and over 200,000 photographs on the Red Planet since its mission landed in Jan. 2004.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has also been cut from government spending for 2016. This craft began its mission mid-2009, and it has allowed scientists to make a greater map of the moon than any mission before it. In 2014, Opportunity had the budget of $14 million while the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter had $12.4 million. For 2016, the budget request is allowing NASA’s planetary science division $1.4 billion.

NASA’s Spirit rover that also began its mission in 2004 had some technical issues regarding its solar panels back in 2010. The panels had been angled away from any light while it had gotten itself stuck in a sand pit during an extremely cold winter on Mars and lost its power. Some scientists believe that the cold temperatures could have damaged the rover’s equipment within the last five years and fear the worst.

NASA’s longest planned Mars mission, with the Odyssey orbiter, is set to lower funding for 2016, and cut funding for fiscal year 2017. All of the cuts are leading to NASA’s decisions of saving money to keep these missions going longer, or putting more money into their new spacecraft and missions with newer technology that could provide better results.

Even the NASA Spitzer Infrared Observatory has been selected to close down for not showing as much benefit for the company with its levels of results in the past few years. Government spending for Spitzer had also been cut in 2014 but, like the Opportunity rover, NASA managed to find enough funds to keep it going another year.

NASA has allowed some universities to manage some of their smaller missions and work with local facilities. For instance, California Institute of Technology manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA, which lowers much of the funding responsibility for NASA.