Ageing Mars rover could be shut down

The Opportunity Mars acquired images for this self-portrait mosaic in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
The Opportunity Mars acquired images for this self-portrait mosaic in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, working well past their expected lifetimes, could be shut down in fiscal year 2016 as the agency tries to balance funding for older missions and development of modernised new space probes, officials said Monday.

Facing bouts of trouble with its flash memory drive, the six-wheeled Opportunity rover marked 11 years on Mars on Jan. 24. The mission was designed to last three months.

The spending proposal released by the Obama administration Monday requests no money for the Opportunity rover in fiscal year 2016, which begins Sept. 30.

Opportunity’s line was also zero in the White House’s budget request last year, but NASA found funding and the mission received a two-year extension after a recommendation from an independent scientific review board.

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

The rover has showed signs of aging in recent months, and ground controllers briefly lost contact with Opportunity in December. The craft’s non-volatile flash memory, which stores data when the rover goes to sleep at night, is wearing out after more than a decade on the red planet.

There are limits to how many times controllers can write and erase data on the flash memory system, and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are coaxing the rover along while they work on a potential long-term fix.

The mission’s operations team has “adopted a tactic of avoiding use of the flash memory, while they prepare a software remedy to restore its capability,” JPL said in a press release issued in January.

The software solution would block off the portion of the memory causing problems, allowing the rover to again use the rest of the flash system.

“Without the use of the onboard memory, it cannot store images or other data overnight,” the press release said. “While operating in a no-flash mode, the mission is downloading each day’s data before beginning the overnight sleep.”

“The fix for the flash memory requires a change to the rover’s flight software, so we are conducting extensive testing to be sure it will not lead to any unintended consequences for rover operations,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at JPL.

A view from the top of “Cape Tribulation” by the Opportunity Mars rover. The craft arrived at the summit of the ridge in early January. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
A view from the top of “Cape Tribulation” by the Opportunity Mars rover. The craft arrived at the summit of the ridge in early January. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

If Opportunity is healthy and still generating worthy science results, the mission could get a reprieve.

“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 said.

Opportunity reached a high vista on the rim of the 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater on Jan. 6, completing the drive without the use of the rover’s flash memory. Its next stop is a region named “Marathon Valley” where observations from orbiting satellites show signs of minerals that may have been exposed to water long ago.

The rover has logged nearly 26 miles of driving since it landed on Mars in January 2004, farther than any craft has traveled on another world. The Marathon Valley site got its name because Opportunity will have driven the equivalent distance of a marathon on Mars by the time it arrives.

Opportunity has sent back more than 200,000 images from the surface of Mars.

NASA last heard from its twin rover Spirit in 2010 after it got stuck in a sand pit with its power-generating solar panels tilted away from the sun. It lost power in the Martian winter, and cold temperatures may have damaged sensitive components on the rover.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is also under the budget ax. The spacecraft launched in June 2009 and mapped the moon in greater detail than any mission before.

“At some point, we’ll look at its operations and identify whether we will be able to continue (operating it) in 2016,” Radzanowski told reporters Monday.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, the longest-lived mission ever to visit the red planet, is slated to receive funding in fiscal year 2016, but its budget could be cut to zero in 2017.

Radzanowski said NASA must decide whether to pour resources into aging missions or pay for construction of new spacecraft capable of more innovative scientific research.

“What you’re looking at is tension you have in any activity that has operations and development,” Radzanowski said. “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.”

NASA’s Spitzer infrared observatory was singled out for cancellation in 2014 after receiving a relatively low ranking by a review panel that recommends which operating missions the space agency should keep going.

But NASA officials said two months later they found money to continue Spitzer’s mission despite worries it would end.

Artist's concept of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/GSFC

“Whether we will continue that modus operandi for some of these lower cost operating missions going forward — zeroing them out and finding funding for them in the future — I don’t know,” Radzanowski said. “But it’s a reflection of trying to balance development versus future operations.”

Opportunity’s budget for fiscal year 2014 was $14 million. LRO received $12.4 million for mission operations last year. The White House budget request would give NASA’s planetary science division, which includes Opportunity and LRO, nearly $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2016.

“Could somebody else, a university, a private entity, etc., operate these missions? … I’m not saying that today we are looking at those types of options or models for LRO or on Opportunity going forward,” Radzanowski said. “At the same time, the agency — I think — is open for new ways. When from an agency standpoint, we no longer have a science requirement to keep them operating, if somebody out there does want to provide funding and come to the table and continue operating, we might consider that.”

NASA has signed agreements for external groups to take over aging or decommissioned spacecraft before. The California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, assumed responsibility for funding NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer, or GALEX, ultraviolet space telescope from May 2012 to April 2013.

“I’m not guaranteeing that we would do it, but we would consider it,” Radzanowski said.