Towards Marathon Valley…

Having conquered Cape Tribulation, and looked down in triumph from its summit, Opportunity is now descending again, rolling southwards, heading for the entrance to Marathon Valley, where it’s possible some of her most rewarding and spectacular science yet might be carried out.

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That is, unless she is murdered.

Because yet again Opportunity’s fate doesn’t lie in the hands of Mars, a planet which has tried its best to kill her after every sunrise for the past eleven years. Nor does it lie in the hands of its incredible engineers, drivers and support team back on Earth. No. Opportunity’s fate yet again rests in the hands of politicians, and bean counters.

The NASA FY 2016 budget document says this: “NASA plans to end Opportunity operations by FY 2016.” Yes, you read that correctly. NASA plans (not wants, we’ll come to that later…) to turn Opportunity OFF by 2016. If that meant next year it would be bad enough, but as the fiscal year ends on September 30th, that means Oppy could have only 8 months left to live.

By now I imagine many of you are shaking your heads in disbelief or balling your hands up into fists in frustration. Me too. Turn off a functioning robot exploring another planet? Are they ******** serious?? Has April Fool’s Day arrived early?

Sadly not. Because, amazingly, having survived eleven years of dust storms, computer problems, memory glitches and more, having driven across deserts of cinnamon-hued dust, having rolled into and back out of ancient craters, and having climbed a mountain and looked down on Barsoom from high, high above, Opportunity stands on Mars today with a political Sword of Damocles hanging over her. NASA’s latest budget request to the American Congress actually has Opportunity’s funding “zeroed out”, which is techno-babble for reduced-to-nothing. In effect, NASA is saying that the money they are being offered can only go so far, and unless they get more money then some things will have to go – and one of those is Opportunity. There’s lots of money, of course, for the James Webb Space Telescope – a financial black hole if ever there was one – and for other missions, and for the proposed SLS mega-rocket, but for Opportunity? For a rover which has rewritten the text books on Mars, a rover which has captured the public imagination, a rover which has taken countless millions of people around the world on a decade-long road trip across Mars, inspiring, educating and exciting them along the way – nothing.

Of course, this could all just be political posturing – NASA playing chicken with the people who hold its purse strings – because it has happened before. Last time NASA threatened to kill off our gal, the money was found to keep Opportunity roving, and commentators and experts with far more knowledge about these macho political pissing contests than I are not too worried about this latest round of handbags on the dancefloor between NASA and Congress, and believe this is just a ploy by NASA and money will be found again to keep Oppy going. I trust them and I hope they’re right. Because the alternative is almost too ridiculous, too ghastly, too stupid to think about: NASA would switch off a priceless asset – a functioning rover on Mars, when it is within touching distance of one of the most fascinating science sites on Mars.

Of course, Opportunity isn’t the sprightly young thing she was, and that’s why I carefully didn’t call her a “fully functioning rover”. Recent problems with her Flash memory are troubling, and might be a sign that her days are numbered. Indeed, NASA itself acknowledges this in its budget document: “After a long, productive mission life, Opportunity has started to show signs of age, including recent problems with its flash memory,” it says.

Actually, when I read that my eyebrow lifted like Spock’s. “Hang on… does NASA actually *want* to switch off Oppy?” I wondered, because that line there talks about Oppy in the past tense, like a kindly vet telling a dog owner that their beloved pet has “lived a good life” and it’s time to let it go. Could that be the case? Are the NASA Powers That Be actually thinking that Opportunity should be switched off instead of fought for? Are there people high up in NASA who are actually considering killing Opportunity, one of their most successful missions ever? Surely not. Why would they even think such a thing? Could they be embarrassed by Oppy’s continuing successes and popularity with the media and the public and want the spotlight focussed solely on Curiosity, the rover with disintegrating wheels but without a real mission?

If she died today, through some kind of mechanical, structural or software failure, it would be a tragedy for science and Mars enthusiasts, but it would be an acceptable way to go. But to think of Opportunity being turned off by NASA, to think of someone sending a command to Mars that actually killed her, well, it’s too terrible to contemplate. One day Opportunity will die. Mars will finally succeed in killing her as it has tried to every sol since she landed. And that will be a sad day, the end of an incredible adventure on Mars. But that’s how she should go, doing science, driving, doing her job. Not switched off by someone on Earth because money couldn’t be found to keep her going.

And that’s what it comes down to – money. Opportunity’s time on Mars is not free and it has to be paid for. But really, the cost of keeping Oppy a’roving is peanuts compared to the money being spent elsewhere. How much did the recent Superbowl cost to stage, I wonder? I read on a website that the highest paid American Footballer, Matt Ryan, earned – wait for this – $43.8m last year. That must be almost what it cost to keep Oppy roving on Mars in the same time? And how much is spent each day by the military? On dog food? On cosmetics?

Also in the news yesterday, a record amount was paid for a painting. Gaugin’s “When Will You Marry?” was bought by a Quatari museum for – wait for this – $300m. Yes, you read that correctly…

tswqjx

And there’s no money to keep Opportunity roving on Mars?

Do me a favour.

If Congress call’s NASA’s bluff – and they will do eventually – I hope someone there has the guts to stand up for the rover and find the money from somewhere else. Of course, every mission is precious to the people who operate it, who live and breathe it every bit as much as the MER team do their mission, but seriously, to even consider switching off a working rover on another planet is folly. Someone, somewhere, just find the damned money and keep Opportunity roving. Like Spirit, when she’s gone, she’ll be gone forever, and the MER mission will go down in history as one of the most successful and inspiring missions of this (first) space age.

I mean, look where she is now, as she drives down from the summit of Cape Tribulation. This is her latest view…

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She can now see the entrance to Marathon Valley. Soon she will roll up to it and start to drive down into it. What’s waiting for here there? Why is it such a big deal? We’ll have to wait and see, but in a her most recent (and brilliant) “Opportunity Mission Update” on the Planetary Society blog,  AJS Rayl wrote this…

The MER mission was drawn to Marathon Valley by orbital data that indicate there are phyllosilicates there, multiple kinds of clay minerals there, signs of past water. Among whatever surprises and new mysteries Mars may offer up, the scientists are hoping to find more of the deepest stratigraphic unit that Opportunity uncovered at Matijevic Hill on Cape York back in 2012-2013 and is now known as Matijevic Formation. “We spent months exploring Matijevic Hill and Marathon Valley looks bigger and better,” said Squyres. “There’s a chance that we will see similarly old rocks there.”

So, exciting times ahead then! She’s close now, so close…

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And although it might be wildly optimistic, it seems some on the MER team are even starting to wonder about life AFTER Endeavour. Not openly, of course, not in any big, public way, but this paper suggests that maybe, just maybe, some are wondering if Oppy might one day leave Endeavour and travel on to another crater beyond…

iazu

(Hmmm…. might there one day be a “Road To Iazu” blog…?)

So, there you go… Oppy under threat, again… maybe… Will be interesting to see how this story unfolds and then concludes in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, check back soon to see where Oppy goes next. 🙂

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