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Long-lived Opportunity Mars rover to be killed in 2015 NASA budget


NASA's long-lived Mars rover Opportunity, which just celebrated 10 years on Mars and is still in good working order, will see the proverbial plug get pulled come next year as NASA's 2015 budget request makes no allocation for the solar-powered rover. The news comes via NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green.

The reason for wanting to kill an ongoing, successful beyond wildest expectations mission: money.

Last week, basic information about NASA's proposed budget hit the news Overall, NASA will get its budget cut by about 1%. In total, NASA's 2015 budget will be $17.5 billion, which makes it all the more a shame that NASA can't spare the mere $13 million to keep Opportunity going. In contrast, NASA will be wasting $133 million on an impossible asteroid capture mission.

The good news: Opportunity isn't dead yet.

On the government end, NASA could still seek money from the Obama Administration's Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative, which holds $900 million in reserve for various government agencies. For the record, NASA is seeking $56 million, $35 million of which would go to planetary science mission extensions, which would include Opportunity.

As a second option, one can't forget the public. When NASA pulled the plug on the government-funded Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program in the early 1990s, the public reaction was amazing to the tune of millions of dollars in donations, enough to keep SETI going the following year. Now, two decades later, SETI is still going strong, all on donated money. Needless to say, in its decade on Mars, Opportunity has developed quite a following, perhaps enough to get the public to step in with donations should the government fail to provide the needed funds for the continuation of the mission.

Hopefully, one way or the other, Opportunity will get an extension.

Speaking on Opportunity's unimaginable longevity, John Callas, project manager for opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that “these are magnificently designed machines . . . we really have greatly expanded the exploration envelope by having a vehicle that can not only last so long but stay in very good health over that time, such that we can continue exploring."

Not bad for a rover that was only expected to last 3 months.

Launched for the Red Planet in 2003, a time which coincided with the closest Earth-Mars approach in thousands of years, Opportunity, along with its twin rover, Spirit, started their journey through space in the hopes of fulfilling a planetary scientist's dream of a large, long-lived, roving vehicle that was to serve as a mobile science platform. In the mission statement, Opportunity and Spirit were given a 90 day life estimate.

That was at the rovers' arrival in January, 2004.

Their initial mission to look for signs of water on Mars completed within the 90 day time frame, both rovers were still going strong. So, officially living on borrowed time, NASA scientists decided to try and get as much out of the rovers as possible before they too went the way of Pathfinder/Sojourner, Viking, and all the other Mars missions.

Needless to say, the rovers did not disappoint, with their findings completely reshaping our knowledge of the Red Planet.

Unfortunately for Spirit, things started to turn rocky on March 13, 2006 when one of the rover's front wheels became immobilized. Being a front wheel, mission control simply turnedSpirit around and drive it backwards for 3 years, during which it continued its mission. However, while the stuck wheel was a minor inconvenience, things turned serious on May 1, 2009, when Spirit got stuck in Martian sand. After months of trying to extricate the rover, NASA declared that Spirit would serve as a stationary science lab in January, 2010. Unfortunately, the rover's solar panels were not orientated toward the Sun in the best possible angle, which meant that power would be a problem. Then, on March 22, 2010, all transmissions from the rover ceased as Martian winter arrived. The rover was finally declared dead the following year.

As for Opportunity, things could not be more different. Thanks to its location in a region closer to the Martian equator, Opportunity has been able to avoid the more severe polar winters that, in all probability, doomed its twin. To date, Opportunity has driven over 24 miles across Mars, and, according to NASA, is still going strong., inspecting rock outcroppings at Solander Point, which is located on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

Hopefully, the financial picture will change and Opportunity will get to celebrate many more birthdays.

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