Opportunity Under Threat

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When I started writing this blog – almost ten years ago now – I thought that Opportunity had two, maybe three more years of roving ahead of her. Five at the most. She had already travelled so far, seen so much, made so many discoveries, that to expect many more years than that seemed not just greedy but unrealistic.

So by the time Opportunity had reached the rim of Endeavour Crater I was absolutely sure (although I never said it here of course!) that it was just a matter of time before her mission was ended by a technical failure of some sort – a computer glitch that left her with the robot equivalent of dementia, or maybe a physical fault with some part of her structure. There was also a good chance that Mars itself would take out the rover, just as it took out her sister, Spirit, years earlier. So I started writing this blog with the mindset that every day Oppy woke up was a bonus, every sunrise and sunset she saw was a gift, every metre she rolled and crunched and scrunched across the dusty surface of Barsoom a wonder not to be taken for granted.

So when the dust storm blocked out the sky above Opportunity – and then all over the planet – at the start of June I wondered if the bullet with Oppy’s name written on it had finally been fired. She’d survived other dust storms, but this one was different. This storm was brutal, and cruel, and within a couple of sols had plunged Opportunity into an almost stygian darkness. Of course, with no sunlight to bathe in and be charged by, our solar powered rover was soon in trouble, and as her power levels dropped she stopped sending back images and fell into a deep sleep.

It’s now been 83 days since we heard anything from Oppportunity, but during that time her team has stated over and over again how confident they are that she will come back once the sky has cleared enough to recharge her batteries again. It was just – they and we thought – a matter of time until she woke up, yawned, stretched and beeped off a “Hey, I’m awake – did I miss anything?” message to Earth.

But it seems Time is not on Opportunity’s side.

Early yesterday morning my (UK) time, social media lit up with Tweets and Facebook posts from people aghast at what they had read in a NASA media release. Here’s a link to it…

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7227

I urge you to read it, but to save time right now basically what it says boils down to this: the dusty sky above Oppportunity is  now clearing, so we are hopeful that she will answer our calls and phone home soon. But if she doesn’t do that very soon, i.e. within 45 days of the sky essentially becoming reasonably clear again, then we’re going to stop calling her and just listen out for her instead.

Yes, you read that correctly: after all she has been through, after all the amazing discoveries she has made, after all the wonderful sights she has shown us, Opportunity now has a Sword Of Damocles hanging over her head. Unless she replies to our calls soon then we’re going to abandon her after one final, clearly begrudged month of trying, and then just wait and see if she tries to contact us on her own.

I say “we” but of course I don’t mean the MER team. They are absolutely committed to trying to contact Opportunity and bring her back to operational status again, and will obviously try everything they possibly can to make that happen. No, this deadline has been imposed on them – to their surprise and shock – by people above them.

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Like many followers and supporters of the MER rover and its amazing team I am feeling both shocked and furious. For the past 14 years I have followed Oppy’s epic trek across Mars, walking beside her as she crossed deserts, ploughed through endless fields of dust dunes, rolled into and back out of craters, and more. I was there on the day she landed and have always imagined being there on the day her mission ended, with her either lying on her side at the foot of a cliff or on the floor of a crater.

This is wrong.

Why this sudden, almost desperate rush to abandon Oppportunity to her fate on Mars?

Well, playing Devil’s Advocate for a few lines, we have to be honest with ourselves and each other and acknowledge that Opportunity might already be dead, or at least in such a poor condition that she will never call home again. Perhaps there’s just so much dust on her that she can’t come back from this storm, and the time has come to let her go. By continuing to try to contact her we’re not just spending money for no reason but using precious NASA resources too. This two-stage plan might be the best plan on offer under the circumstances –

No, sorry, I don’t buy that, not for a minute.

The truth is, we don’t KNOW what state Opportunity is in at the moment. She could be just weeks, days, or even just hours away from waking. The sky above her is clearing, as NASA has said, so she might just need a little more time.

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So why isn’t she being given that time? Why is there this sudden desperate, against-the-clock rush to pull her plug, or at least turn our backs on her?

And it is a rush. That 45 days deadline is ridiculous – actually, no, let’s be perfectly honest here, it’s absolute bullshit, a figure plucked out of the air with no apparent scientific justification.

Isn’t that a bit strong? If they think Opportunity is dead or can’t operate any more, isn’t 45 days quite a generous timescale? No, it’s not: the MER team was allowed to attempt to contact Spirit for over ten MONTHS after she fell silent, yet they are only being given 45 DAYS to try and contact Opportunity. That seems like a deliberate attempt to thwart the team’s efforts to me. It’s hard not to conclude that someone, somewhere, sees this as a way of ending Opportunity’s mission quickly.

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Another question needs answering: why aren’t the MER team being allowed to keep trying to contact Opportunity through the next “dust cleaning season”? Between November and the end of January Opportunity will be in a good position – physically, because of where she is parked up on the inner slope of Endeavour crater – to be cleaned by the winds that sweep up from the crater floor, maybe even by whirling dust devils. This has happened in previous years, and has resulted in Opportunity being given a real energy boost. There’s a good chance that if the team is allowed to keep trying to contact Opportunity until the end of January Mars itself will help them out by giving Opportunity a good brushing – but for some reason they’re not being given that chance. Why?

Is it boredom? Are NASA now simply bored with small, slow, aged Opportunity trundling across Mars and are wishing that bigger, sexier Curiosity had Mars – and the public’s and media’s attention – all to herself?

Is it politics? Are the MER mission managers trying to score points with their bosses by wrapping up the mission once and for all, allowing its funds, resources and people to be transferred to other projects?

Maybe a bit of both of those, but really, no matter how they try to dress this up, it has to come down to one thing: MONEY.

Opportunity doesn’t run on fresh air and good wishes. It costs money to keep her rolling across Mars. The people who drive her, who communicate with her and keep her fit enough to explore Mars all have to be paid, equipment has to be maintained, serviced or replaced, etc etc.  That doesn’t cost a fortune in space exploration terms, but it’s not peanuts either. So, are the NASA bean counters and accountants now regarding Opportunity’s tiny budget with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, drawing their plans against her? Of course they are. Are they wanting to spend the money being spent on Opportunity on other projects, like the 2020 Rover perhaps? If that follows the same track as Curiosity it will suffer delays and budget problems, and its managers, and the NASA higher ups, must be looking at the money spent on Opportunity and thinking what they could do with it…

If this is a financial decision then NASA needs to be honest and just say so, and stop pretending it’s anything else. People would hate that Opportunity’s mission had to end that way but I think they’d accept it, grudgingly, because figures on a balance sheet don’t lie. But all this cloak and dagger/Game of Thrones plotting crap is beneath JPL and beneath NASA, and is the wrong way to end Opportunity’s incredible mission.

The more I think about this the more it seems like a stitch-up. And when I read this in an article published online a short while ago I can’t help thinking that someone, somewhere, has been looking for a way to end Opportunity’s mission and this has all been plotted in secret:

Rumors had swirled at JPL this week that officials were making such preparations for the end of Opportunity’s mission, according to another member of the Opportunity team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press. The Opportunity team did not receive formal notice about the plans until minutes before JPL published its press release Thursday afternoon, she said.

Wow. The MER team weren’t told until minutes – minutes! – before the press release went out. That’s very crafty, very sneaky, and a deliberate ploy to keep them out of the loop and stop them protesting. It’s also proof that all this has been done behind their backs, which is frankly disgusting.

So where are we? Well, there will now be two periods of “listening”. When the sky above Opportunity reaches a certain degree of clarity then the countdown Doomwatch clock will start, and the MER team will have just 45 days to send commands to Opportunity in the hope of waking her up and getting her to talk back to them – “Active Listening”. If there’s still no word from Opportunity at the end of those 45 days then the MER team will be told to stop sending commands to Opportunity and will just listen for any signals beamed back from her after waking up on her own – “Passive Listening”.

And this, again, seems to me to indicate that they – whoever they are – don’t actually want contact with Opportunity to be regained, so they can declare the mission over and use its people, resources and budget for other things.

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Think of it this way: if you knew someone was lost on the bleak, windswept, rain-lashed hills shown above,  what would be the best way of finding them? You’d go up onto those hills and call out their name, again and again, hoping they’d hear you and call back so you could find them and bring them back down to safety. If you just sat in your car in the car park at the foot of the hills, miles away from the area they went missing in, and every now and again rolled down the window halfway to see if you could hear them calling out to you you’d have no chance of finding them, would you? Of course not. Well, this is exactly what the MER team will have to do after the 45 Days are up.

Oh… just imagine if, on Day 44, or even 45, Opportunity DID call home, letting the MER team know she was alive and ready to get back to work. Wouldn’t that be the greatest two-fingered salute in the history of space exploration? Imagine THAT press conference…

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As I said, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that someone, somewhere, has decided that it’s time for the MER mission to finally end, and this dust storm hibernation has given them a chance to end it. We don’t know if Opportunity is lost yet, it’s still too early to say. The MER team have a lot more work to do yet trying to contact and revive her.

They should be given the chance to try.

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