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Is the Opportunity Rover a Mission 'Whose Time Has Passed'?

No.

Posted by Casey Dreier

15-03-2015 20:56 CDT

Topics: opinion, Opportunity, FY2016 NASA Budget, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars

Is Opportunity, the longest-surviving rover on the surface of Mars, a mission "whose time has passed?" That's what NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said last week, which is a remarkably different conclusion than that of a recent independent review panel, which ranked Opportunity's coming science plan higher than any other mission at the red planet.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Bolden testifying before a Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C.

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Last Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, an authorizing committee with oversight over the U.S. space agency (though not over its budget).

The topic was the White House's 2016 budget request, which, despite providing a 2.9% increase to NASA's overall budget, requests no money at all for continued operations of MER Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) pressed Bolden on the decision to end Opportunity's mission prematurely. During the resulting back and forth, Administrator Bolden made what I consider a surprising statement regarding Opportunity's value:

"We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won't be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016…I have to make choices"

I assume that the Administrator was making a metaphorical point regarding the ongoing debate about priorities, because there are two major problems with this statement. Let's look at them.

"...missions whose time has passed..."

Has Opportunity's time passed? Well, it's been on Mars for over 11 years now, longer than any other mission to Mars' surface. That's a long time, but time used well. In addition to finishing the world's fastest (albeit only) martian marathon, it has helped to revolutionize our understanding of the role of liquid water in Mars' history. Its exploration is ongoing. In fact, it just discovered a rock "unlike any we've seen before" while searching for clay minerals near Marathon Valley. The pictures it returns to us every day are haunting and beautiful.

That's all well and good, but perhaps NASA evaluates the value of this scientific return differently. It does: it's called the Planetary Science Senior Review, and it happens every two years. Every mission operating beyond its original lifetime must submit its future science plan to an independent panel of experts for review and scrutiny.

This is no rubber stamp review. The most recent findings of this senior review process, which were released last year, were extremely critical of the Curiosity's rover's science plan. The report of the review panel also recommended shutting off multiple instruments it saw as unnecessary on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to save money.

So how did Opportunity rank in this independent senior review? The answer is: higher than every other current Mars mission. Yes, that's right. Its science plan ranked higher than those for Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey.

Mission Rankings from the 2014 Planetary Science Senior Review

NASA

Mission Rankings from the 2014 Planetary Science Senior Review
E = Excellent. VG = Very Good. G = Good. Ratings in red are the final ratings by the review board, which include specific findings as to the best science investment that can be made for a given mission. Source: Results of the 2014 Planetary Mission Senior Review presentation [pdf]. September 3rd, 2014.

This is not to say that other missions were not seen as important. The report declared that "all have important strengths. That is, all represent added value to...the American taxpayer because they are essentially new missions without the development and launch costs."

NASA's Planetary Science Division, which builds and manages all planetary exploration spacecraft, and which, notably, does not decide what the NASA Administrator supports and doesn't, agreed with the findings of the senior review report and approved the extended mission plans for Opportunity and LRO for two additional years.

So is Opportunity a mission whose time has passed? I don't think so. The Planetary Science Division of NASA didn't think so. And the independent experts NASA asked to evaluate this very question didn't think so, either.

"We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions...because I won't be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016"

The other part of the Administrator's statement I take issue with is all about the conflict between the old and the new. Bolden is pointing out that the next mission to Mars, InSight (which will launch in 2016), would not get the funding it needs because ongoing missions like Opportunity and LRO are too costly.

Here, I have to assume that the Administrator was speaking metaphorically in order to make a point.

The cost to operate the Opportunity rover is about $14 million per year. This is a little less than 1% of the beleaguered Planetary Science Division's budget, and about 0.08% of NASA's total budget.

InSight was selected as the next mission to land on Mars in 2012. Opportunity was running that year. Work on InSight began in earnest; funding peaked at $203.3 million in 2014 as assembly and integration of the spacecraft began. Again, Opportunity explored Mars that year. Same for 2015 as work on InSight continued. For 2016, the last year of InSight's development, NASA is requesting $92.1 million to finish and launch the spacecraft, less than in previous years. Suddenly, Opportunity is too expensive.

The vast majority of the money that will ever be spent on InSight has already been spent. For the entirety of InSight's development, from 2012 to now, Opportunity continued to explore the martian surface. It's clearly not a choice between Opportunity and InSight, they've coexisted happily during the most expensive period of InSight's life cycle.

I'm not making an argument here. This already happened. This is fact.

"...I have to make choices"

Despite this, Bolden's fundamental point is valid. There are hard choices to be made between future missions and current missions. Even though Opportunity is small fraction of NASA's budget, the cost of operating every planetary science mission (Opportunity, Cassini, Curiosity, MESSENGER, etc.) adds up to about 20% of all money spent on planetary science in 2015.

But that's not the whole story. NASA has consistently requested cuts for its Planetary Science Division every year for the past four years, putting enormous budgetary pressure on existing missions, scientific research, and future spacecraft development. Thankfully, Congress has stepped up and mitigated these cuts for three out of those four years (the fourth year is being debated now). I am hopeful that Congress will once again come through and provide the $26 million needed to keep both Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions going in 2016 (though you should probably let them know that you support this).

This is not a zero sum game, despite what people think often think. The 2016 budget request for NASA proposed a $518.9 million increase over 2015. Why not earmark some of that $518.9 million for two of the best-performing, scientifically valuable, lowest-risk spacecraft NASA has? Or even just tack it on to the top? What's the difference, really, between $518.9 million and $544.9 million in a $1.194 trillion total discretionary budget request? In addition, Congress has demonstrated a consistent willingness to add money for planetary exploration by adding funding for three years in a row. If NASA had asked, it's likely that Congress would have been happy to support both missions.

Bolden is right: there are choices to be made. But not the false choice between two stalwart missions and the next Mars lander. The choice we face is whether to fight for Opportunity and LRO or not. Let's choose—all of us—to fight for these missions and for all of the precious scientific discoveries they have yet to make. We lose them now, and they're likely gone forever.

Oppy Moves in on Charbonneau
Moving in on Charbonneau
Opportunity took this image with her NavCam as she approached the rock target the team named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau on Feb. 12, 2015. It's a rock unlike any the MER scientists have seen before and although they are still analyzing the data, they think it may be an igneous rock or perhaps impact melt. Caption by A.J.S Rayl.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

 
See other posts from March 2015

 

Or read more blog entries about: opinion, Opportunity, FY2016 NASA Budget, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars

Comments:

Paul McCarthy: 03/15/2015 11:01 CDT

This seems truly bizarre! Every morning, after checking the weather forecast and my emails, I go first to the latest Opportunity (then MSL) pics. Any new day could reveal, as simply as glancing at the latest image, the first convincing evidence of life beyond Earth, most obviously for example in the form of convincing stromatolitic structures. This remains absolutely as true, every new day, as it did the day Opportunity landed! It remains perfectly plausible tomorrow, as Opportunity enters new areas of older strata. And it will remain perfectly plausible if the robot races all the way to crater Iazu, with its huge apron of ejecta, after Endeavour. It will remain just as possible even when (if) the rover retains nothing but a single camera from its original instruments. Even a single roving camera on Mars is an absolutely priceless asset. Just 20 years ago, such a luxury would have seemed pure nirvana! Surely the administration's thinking betrays a lack of knowledge of some basic astrobiological plausibilities? Or otherwise, even worse, it betrays some sort of fear that "we can't have too much of this sort of thing: all this running around by cheap robots, covering marathons, improving at Moore's Law rates, etc. At this rate, there'll be absolutely nothing for our incredibly expensive and dangerous astronaut missions to do there, and no justification for us working towards that."

Vikingmars: 03/16/2015 03:22 CDT

Thanks, a lot, Casey, for this excellent lobbying work of yours to help save the planetary program. Ending Oppy's mission just by a snap of fingers would be considered as sheer stupidity knowing its cost close to nil. If you need building a fund to help operate this excellent mission, like we did for the "Viking Fund" in the '80s, I'm ready to give you the first 100 Dollars ! Thanks to your good actions, I'm even more proud being a member of the Planetary Society for tens of years now (as a Charter Member). Warmest regards, VM

Rob: 03/16/2015 05:54 CDT

I think it's pretty obvious the administration is using this as a bargaining chip, to push back against congress funding Europa missions at the expense of their human space flight plans. I don't think anyone in the administration seriously thinks the Opportunity mission should be ended.

Messy: 03/16/2015 07:24 CDT

Rob: WHAT manned spaceflight plans? Aside from that Apollo 8 rerun six years from now, what plans does NASA have?

Tony Fisk: 03/16/2015 07:31 CDT

Is there a precedent for shutting down a deep space mission that is still viable? (Also, from last year's planning reviews, I thought it was *Curiosity* that was having difficulty getting over the bar)

Skip: 03/16/2015 08:07 CDT

Is there a precedent for killing an active program just because of funding, rather than technical? Apollo 18 and on, as well as the space shuttle, comes to mind, but I am more curious about probes that are still sending good science. I also think Mr. Bolden is just posturing to get more money. I can't imagine the outcry that would arise if they really came close to throwing the switch.

Gregk: 03/16/2015 09:18 CDT

If they really, and truly didn't want to continue funding the mission, I would that instead of shutting it down, they would hand it over to another country's space program. It would be an awesome chance to help some other space program get hands-on experience operating an interplanetary rover, be a great opportunity to promote US goodwill and international relations, and most importantly, it would keep the science coming. Of course, there are a million reasons why something like that could never happen.

David Frankis: 03/16/2015 12:11 CDT

Things I've seen elsewhere suggest Bolden gave a pretty spirited defence of NASA to both its friends and enemies in Congress. The feebleness of this effort suggests he's signaling that he hopes they'll override those jackasses in OMB who forced this on him.

morganism: 03/16/2015 05:30 CDT

Just another ploy to get some extra cash to Planetary, without pissing off the astrophys and heliophys folks. Oppy is doing fab science, and wish we could spend more time at the shattercones, rather than dashing off to what will prob be a boring time in Marathon Valley

drmorbius: 03/18/2015 09:11 CDT

$14 million per year for Oppie is a pittance compared to how much is spent on the ISS. Heck NASA spent $19 million on a new space toilet for the ISS (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/19623499/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/million-funneled-space-toilet/#.VQouJeFLA5w)

Jim: 03/23/2015 11:20 CDT

Skip, I know of one precedent. They shut down the Apollo ALSEP network (seismographs, magnetometers, other surface geophysical instruments at the landing sites) in 1977, just 5 years after the last moon landing. It still had plenty of Plutonium power and would have worked for probably another decade or two. It cost about $200,000 per year in 1977, but they shut it down because it was too expensive. Think about how much it cost to put it there - billions.

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