It may be the end of Opportunity.
The Mars Rover Opportunity, along with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, face the possibility of funding cuts as they continue to operate well past their missions' original timeframe. According to the most recent budget discussions for 2016, the federal government does not plan to finance either operation, reported The American Register.
Opportunity, which had an original objective of three months, travelled to Mars with its twin rover, Spirit, in early 2004. In the 11 years it has roamed the Red Planet, it has sent over 100,000 images back to Earth. It recently completed the first extraterrestrial marathon, clocking in 26.221 miles since its arrival on Mars.
This is not the first time these projects have faced budget problems. Almost every year, both Opportunity’s and the LRO's budgets are called into question. In the past, when federal funding has failed, private donors have stepped up to contribute to the operation of both.
If funding fails this time, will private donors cover the costs again?
According to some scientists, it may be worth the investment. The Argyll Free Press reported that the latest NASA evaluation of Mars-based operations —analyzing cost-reliability and scientific progress per expenses — found Opportunity and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to be the most efficient use of resources for return on scientific gains. It may be much more efficient than developing new rovers and technologies from scratch. Andreea Madalina of The Argyll Free Press wrote:
“When we consider the price of developing, examining and releasing a space device (not to mention the major risks of failure), the majority of the expenses of Mars Rover Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have already happened. It is far more cost-effective to discover new ways to work with current devices than to release new components.”
Yet both missions have surpassed their shelf-life by years. Opportunity was not expected to last beyond 2004. Specialists just fixed the probe’s flash storage, which the rover has been functioning without for the past few years. Its robotic arm is also apparently arthritic.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is in its seventh year, even though researchers initially predicted that it would survive only one year. Its bi-static radar is broken and cannot be fixed due to budget deficits. The radar is still able to check the moon’s area and evaluate the quantities of ice, which is valuable information in studying whether or not the moon may be a more hospitable environment than previously thought.
Without official funding, NASA may be able to utilize $35 million to fund the operations as part of a White House package called the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative,” a line item they have been able to use in past years. But within this category falls funding for job training, climate control, and education. With a Republican majority, the federal government may steer away from financing space budgets and focus more on the home turf.
NASA faces a difficult dilemma in terms of where to allocate resources. They are currently eager to move forward with a Mars 2020 rover, as well as a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that is thought to contain liquid water beneath its ice. At the same time, they currently have two operations that are still providing useful data.
Who knows? Perhaps a Kickstarter campaign would keep these missions going.