As annual budgetary discussions intensify, NASA is once again considering funding cuts to the Mars Rover Program. Along with its twin machine Spirit, the rover Opportunity had an original mission of a mere three months as it landed on the planet in 2004. Now 11 years past this initial mission scope, NASA has no existing plans to continue financing the project.
For several years now as federal financing has been in jeopardy and occasionally threatened, private benefactors have stepped in to augment fiscal constraints. Many in the science community feel that continuing the program is a worthy investment based on the value and volume of information gathered. In that the most substantial part of space exploration costs are in the development and delivery of devices, the Opportunity and it’s mission companion the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are well past recoupment and require much less investment than would the development of new equipment from scratch.
In the last decade alone, Opportunity has sent back over 100,000 photos to scientists on Earth. Recently, the rover required a software update to repair issues with its utilization of inboard memory banks. Flash memory allows the unit to store data even without power supply. Memory has been intermittently failing for the past several years and issues persisted even after the software reboot that bypassed one of seven internal banks. Fortunately, NASA representatives report that no information was lost in spite of the intermittent failure.
Since landing on the Martian surface, NASA’s Opportunity has logged over 26 miles of surface travel. While this accumulated distance seems minuscule considering that it had to travel over 300 million miles of deep space to get to the Red Planet, Opportunity creeps along at a blurring 2 inches per second. It moves in 10 second bursts, then pauses to observe and document the area it has rolled into before continuing its journey on its six individually wheels. The main scientific goal of Martian exploration is to determine if Mars could have ever supported life, the role that water would have had in this and to study the geology and weather patterns of the planet.
For each fiscal year, NASA has the arduous task of determining where to allocate its limited resources. With the cessation of the Space Shuttle Program, much of NASA’s yearly budget has been redirected toward terrestrial causes including education and climate control. Plans for cuts to exploration programs like the existing Mars rover project are somewhat supported by NASA’s desires to develop new space exploration initiatives. Currently there are plans for a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons as well as a new Mars 2020 rover mission. Europa is believed to have liquid water beneath its surface ice.
In spite of a rich legacy of scientific discovery that has practical terrestrial application in innovations including insulin pumps, weather satellites and even laser surgery, space exploration is still often a low priority in the age of austerity and budget cuts. Fortunately, NASA’s consideration for funding cuts to the Mars Rover program is counter balanced by the fact that the project is still providing extremely useful scientific data and should continue to do so as long as the equipment remains functional.
By Chris Marion