back to article Opportunity knocked? Rover survives Martian winter, may not survive budget cuts

The knives are out for MER-B, better known as the Opportunity rover, at NASA beancounter central. The beloved rover has just passed the 5,000 sol mark on Mars and is approaching the 15th anniversary of its launch (thankfully without the desolate rendition of "Happy Birthday" played by its plutonium-powered successor, Curiosity …

  1. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

    I wonder if they could upload some software to have it drive itself around and send photos?

    If it crashes into a ditch, no big deal because it's EOL anyway. If it sends something interesting, take back control of it.

    Obviously it's going to be more than

    10 DRIVE ABOUT A BIT

    20 GOTO 10

    But I wonder if it's doable for less than a years running costs?

    1. ravenviz

      15 IF OPERATING_BUDGET=0 THEN STOP

    2. boltar

      "But I wonder if it's doable for less than a years running costs?"

      Nice idea, but I would guess that the hardware isn't up to running software of the sophistication that would be required for that. Space hardware is usually a number of generations behind your average PC at launch and this was launched in 2003 so its hardware & CPU (too lazy to google) is probably circa mid 90s at best.

  2. Robert Moore
    Alien

    Give it away.

    I am sure there is some group of organisation that would be happy to keep it moving around, and sending back data.

    Heck, if they asked for donations, I would chip in a few $, I bet they could dig up the $12 million in a few weeks on gofundme.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Give it away.

      "I am sure there is some group of organisation that would be happy to keep it moving around, and sending back data."

      interesting idea! crowdfunding!

    2. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Give it away.

      One of the problems with that idea is, I fear, access to the deep space communications network. You can't just point a 1 meter dish in the general direction of Mars and get an IP connection going. You need access to NASA's network of dishes dotted around Earth. And they're pretty busy, and expensive.

      However, my view is that whilst there's a prospect of the Martian marauder still doing useful science, then it would be a hideous waste of money to not use it. Arguably these two trundlers, and Curiosity too, represent astonishing science (and public) value for US taxpayer dollars; they've gotten far, far more for than anyone ever bargained for. The original project Balance of Investment report is utter toast; the costs account is so heavily outweighed by the delivered benefits account those responsible should get medals.

      Really the answer should be, build more deep space communications dishes, and get even more value out of the missions that are running, and out of other future long lived missions. There is an argument that international collaboration on that network is the way forward.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Give it away.

        the answer should be, build more deep space communications dishes

        I've read multiple times that Nasa's deep space comms system is stretched thin. I've always wondered why something (more dishes on Earth, maybe relay satellites) hasn't been done to increase capacity. I guess it's because improved comms is less sexy than big rockets.

        1. Dave Rickmers

          Re: Give it away.

          I read Arecibo PR will be getting the axe as well. Mick Mulvaney only believes in leprechauns and growth faries. He considers SETI to be pagan.

      2. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Give it away.

        @bazza, it's costing 12 million dollars a year to keep the program running. So the question: is Opportunity still doing 12 million dollars worth of science a year? Or should we save that money and put it to launching Curiosity Mk2 (or a different mission) and fund THAT for 12 million a year?

        1. DougS Silver badge

          Crowdfunding

          The problem with doing that is congress will think "we don't need to fund anything at NASA anymore, we can drop NASA's funding to $0 and rely on crowdfunding for missions like the Mars rover and corporations to go to the Moon and Mars". Then they'll wail and moan when China leaps ahead of the US in space!

          The problem with areas of the budget doing basic science like finding out if there was/is water on Mars etc. is that some republicans don't like science in general. Science says bad things like the universe was created via a big bang rather than a god, or that the Earth is getting warmer, so it must be stopped!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Crowdfunding

            congress will think "we don't need to fund anything at NASA anymore,

            Have a look at the other project funding on the image that is in the article. On this excerpt, seems to me that Mars project funding is actually pretty constant, and somebody has reasonably decided that they will get more than $12m of benefit doing something else. Personally, I'd be surprised if using the same fifteen year old asset would continue to give good returns, and throwing more money at it in future because it was successful and great value in the past is hardly a sensible investment strategy for science, any more than it would be in financial markets.

          2. pop_corn

            Re: Crowdfunding

            > "or that the Earth is getting warmer, so it must be stopped!"

            That's a new one, I've never heard of stopping the earth as a solution to global warming! ;)

          3. wayward4now
            Linux

            Re: Crowdfunding

            "The problem with areas of the budget doing basic science like finding out if there was/is water on Mars etc. is that some republicans don't like science in general."

            I was with you until this point. Who is to say who is more vested in science?? What has a political party have to do with it?? It wasn't that long ago when the Democrats rode on horses wearing white sheets. So just don't mix science with ideology.

        2. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

          Re: Give it away.

          Another question is how on earth it can cost so much?

          Just slash the budget to 1/10 and keep running it.

    3. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Re: Give it away.

      How about asking that nice Mr Musk? He likes space and has lots of money, and it would be good for his spaceman (who I'm sure is actually The Stig) to have something to run about in when he arrives (not sure the Tesla will cope with re-entry)

  3. James 51 Silver badge

    It would be a pity. In terms of US goverment funding it is not even a rounding error. Plus we're bound to be learning about long term wear and tear on machines on Mars, managing a mission this etc etc.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I truly hope that Americans are ashamed of their President. This is just another reason to be so.

      1. Stuart 22
        Trollface

        "I truly hope that Americans are ashamed of their President. This is just another reason to be so."

        How dare you say that! Right now the greatest dealmaker ever is doing the deal of the century flogging a clapped out second hand Rover Discovery to his 'friend' Vlad for more dosh/votes than Barack could dream of. The p&p is the only sticking point.

        But I await the crowing tweet with [almost] complete confidence.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Which President? We've had more than a few in the last 30-50 years. Oh... the current one.... I see.

        1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

          It is my considered opinion that the best US President so far was William Henry Harrison.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge
            Pint

            Well done, sir. Have a cold one.

          2. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

            It's all been downhill since Lord North took over*.

            * Not technically a president, but who cares

    2. LucreLout Silver badge

      In terms of US goverment funding it is not even a rounding error.

      Quite. Just mandate that all government & state employees will have tap water available rather than bottled water in meetings etc would probably save more money each year than they're talking about here.... while they're dooing thay, they have a car, on Mars.

      One of the things they have to balance is what they expect to learn if the launch, transit, and landing succeed for whatever they do next; against the continued learning opportunities for having a whole bunch of scientific instruments successfully deployed on Mars already.

      I can't imagine we've learned all we can about Mars witht he currently deployed configuration. We've only covered a few miles. Who knows what we'll discover over the next ridge.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mars Express?

    They're also cutting funding for Mars Express, maybe they realized it's not actually their probe anyway.

  5. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

    Obligatory xkcd.

    1. Keef

      Sorry Aladdin, you were beaten to it by the author of the article.

      And to add insult to injury you missed a golden opportunity to Rickroll.

      Failure x2, must do better mate!

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        That'll teach me to skim-read.

  6. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    It won't save any money

    Operating the Rover doesn't cost much - the only direct billing is the data link and that only costs you money if you are having to build extra capacity to support newer missions that you could run now if the rover was turned off.

    Most of the tiny amount is staff that you need to keep but aren't directly part of a current project, so you stick them on some project that looks safe. They will just be re-assigned (and re-budgetted) somewhere else.

    1. Beachrider

      Re: It won't save any money

      There ARE costs at 3 levels. First is the Deepspace Network costs. Second is Mars-relay-orbiter costs. Third is project-direct costsfor MER.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: It won't save any money

        But you only save these costs if you have other paying customers that you are turning down. I don't know the details of Mars Rover, but unless they are paying for commercial services then cutting a small % usage of infrastructure that you own rarely saves the money it shows on the accountants spreadsheet

      2. EricM

        Re: It won't save any money

        There ARE costs at 3 levels. First is the Deepspace Network costs. Second is Mars-relay-orbiter costs. Third is project-direct costsfor MER.

        Beancounter detected ...

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: It won't save any money

        "There ARE costs at 3 levels. First is the Deepspace Network costs. Second is Mars-relay-orbiter costs. Third is project-direct costsfor MER."

        But who are you paying the money to and will you be be saving anything by not paying it? The answer is they are basically paying themselves so no, at best the money goes somewhere else. The real question is will the money be used more effectively by using the resources on other projects.

  7. Hollerithevo Silver badge

    Elon Musk, this is your moment!

    Stop high-speed transport and look at low-speed, but on fricking Mars.

  8. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    Terminator

    Fly me to the moon

    Now we know that there's f* all on Mars it's time to leave it. Why not use the money to experiment with autonomous robots on the Moon? Until the technology exists for robots to build habitats in advance of humans arriving I don't think that we will be going anywhere. Unless of course you don't mind being irradiated and peppered with micro meteorites etc.

    We just need a nuclear powered robot that can go into sunless craters at 100K and chisel out rock-hard water ice. Shouldn't be too difficult /s

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Fly me to the moon

      Sounds like a job for the BFR (Big Fecking Rocket) to deliver another BFR (Big Fecking Robot) to the moon.

      When they finally build a Moonbase, I sincerely hope they don't to include a barber so that the girl with the sideburns can have a shave.

      There were plans to bring Moonbase Alpha back as Space 2099, dunno what happened to that.

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        Re: Fly me to the moon

        That was dumb;

        Forgot to include forget in the sentence ; I sincerely hope they don't FORGET to............

      2. Martin Budden

        Re: Fly me to the moon @ Chris G

        You misspelled Big Fucking Rocket.

        1. Steve Knox

          Re: Fly me to the moon @ Chris G

          @Martin Budden

          Someone needs to bone up on their Irish.

          Here's a primer for ye.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Fly me to the moon

      "Now we know that there's f* all on Mars it's time to leave it."

      I suggest you spend more time studying Uranus and leave the real science to people who know what they are talking about.

    3. LucreLout Silver badge

      Re: Fly me to the moon

      Until the technology exists for robots to build habitats in advance of humans arriving I don't think that we will be going anywhere. Unless of course you don't mind being irradiated and peppered with micro meteorites etc.

      I'd rather that than rotting in a care home. Sign me up for the one way ride in about another 35 years and I'll get something built before I croak - the next codger along can continue the work. Space Codgers.... I'm sure there's a movie about that......

      1. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

        Re: Fly me to the moon

        That's RED 3, isn't it?

  9. alain williams Silver badge

    2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

    He has a new fridge installed on Air Force one at double the price of Opportunity's annual maintainance.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

      new Fridge?

      I thought that was a new rack for his Golf Clubs....?

      He seems to spend more time on the Golf Course than running the country. /s

      1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: 2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

        That's probably a good thing!

        P.S. I read that as ruining the country.

        1. DougS Silver badge

          Re: 2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

          His aides wouldn't let him play golf last weekend because of the optics with the school shooting having taken place not too far away, so instead he spent his weekend watching TV and angry tweeting. That seems to be all he does, he relies on his swamp creatures to do the ruining for him. That's why he thinks he's such a great leader, he doesn't actually do any work he has his underlings do it for him!

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: 2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

            "so instead he spent his weekend watching TV and angry tweeting"

            Given the choice between that and golf, I suspect they now wish they'd let him golf.

        2. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

          Re: 2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

          "P.S. I read that as ruining the country."

          Same thing.

    2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: 2 years Opportunity = Trump's new gin cabinet

      Priorities, right?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Friendly atmosphere?

    The Rover was initially commissioned to last 90 days because the official NASA story is that Mars has no atmosphere, and even if there is something "in the air" there, it must be deadly and dissolving even stainless steel in no time. If this Rover lasted so long there can only one be ONE EXPLANATION to its and its sibling's longevity (apart from good craftsmanship) - THERE MUST BE SOME KIND OF ATMOSPHERE ON MARS THAT SHIELDS AND PROTECTS MAN MADE MACHINES PROBABLY NOT WORSE THAN THE EARTH'S ATMOSPHERE.

    1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: Friendly atmosphere?

      there can only be ONE EXPLANATION

      Two if you wish to consider local Martians giving it a regular service.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Friendly atmosphere?

      We could be living there now if they'd JUST! STOP! THE! LIES!!!!!!

    3. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Friendly atmosphere?

      Uhmmmm, No. Not in the slightest.

      Firstly it was always expected to outlast 90 days, it's just that they didn't initially PLAN further than the first 90 days.

      Secondly the official NASA story is and has always been that mars HAS an atmosphere but that it's so tenuous as to be virtually non existent compared to earths (below 1% of earths atmospheric pressure). That makes landing difficult. There is enough atmosphere to cause friction heating and stability issues, but not enough to use a parachute to slow down sufficiently for a safe landing.

      It was not expected to last MUCH longer than 90 days because of dust building up on the solar panels. Thus the plan was to see after 90 days how much power remained and what they could still do until martian winter set in and they'd lose too much light. The reason it's lasted much longer is because the winds in the (tenuous) Martian atmosphere turn out to be much more capable to remove that dust than anticipated. Because of that and by parking the rover on a south facing slope the rovers could survive a martian winter, something not initially expected because dust buildup on the panels would have prevented sufficient charge to keep the batteries online and instruments heated.

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: It was not expected to last MUCH longer than 90 days because of dust building up on the solar panels

        Which raises the question of why it wasn't equipped with some sort of motorized dust brush, or some sort of vibrating mechanism to shake it off, as it were.

        Anyway, keep the rover roving as long as possible, I say.

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Because those are complicated, add weight and can break down in such a way that they impair the function of an otherwise perfectly good rover.

          It WAS solved in the "faster, better, stronger" Curiosity rover. By using an RTG instead of solar panels. (And the Mars 2020 rover, ie Curiosity Mk2, will too)

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            "By using an RTG instead of solar panels"

            Solved in several ways - you KNOW when it will run out of power and can budget for a hard stop accordingly.

    4. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

      Re: Friendly atmosphere?

      "THERE MUST BE SOME KIND OF ATMOSPHERE ON MARS"

      It's all a conspiracy, I'm telling you man!

      Perhaps read up a bit before jumping to conclusions?

  11. Graham Cobb

    Robot manufacturing

    As I am no expert on space (but very interested, ever since I read the Radio Times double page spread on how Apollo 8 would go around the moon, and watched the moon landing on TV), can someone who is, explain to me why we do not seem to be working on any projects to (learn how to) build autonomous manufacturing facilities somewhere convenient (as high up the gravity well as we can)?

    It seems that sending squishies out for significant exploration is probably (i) very hard and (ii) very wasteful. So we need to send more unmanned devices. Surely some of the ones we should be concentrating on are those which would provide assembly facilities for others? Automated factories, if you will.

    I don't know whether the best place to build stuff is on the moon (convenient for holding things still, maybe source for some material?), in moon orbit (not too hard to get to, reasonably stable and could be linked to static facilities on the surface if there is any advantage), geosynchronous orbit (convenient for comms but not sure it has any other advantage), low earth orbit (easiest to get to, could even be manned, but there is still significant gravity well to escape for whatever gets built), some Lagrange point?

    Of course there are many hard problems to solve. But aren't these the sorts of problems we need to solve if we are to explore the solar system? They seem much more solvable and much more useful than just sending a tiny number of people to walk around briefly.

    What am I missing?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Robot manufacturing

      What am I missing?

      For exploration like what were doing now, there's no saving in just sending a "builder" and lots of parts. Best to build and test here on earth first then send. Up there, you send a "factory" machine to build and the parts then assemble the parts and test. How do you fix if there's no testing bot? Or repair bot? We're actually saving money the way it's being done.

      Then there's finding the raw materials and processing them into something useful which hasn't been done. The "finding" part is really just now starting but it'll take time to find the ores. And the issue of mining it and refining and then manufacturing. Not so simple in reality.

      1. TDog

        Re: Robot manufacturing

        Theoretically we have the concepts already (von neuman machine [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_machine]); we simply have two problems:

        1 Getting it there - this has been just about solved

        2 Providing sufficient fuel (energy source) to allow the machine to have a positive feedback in reproduction

        In simple terms if it hasn't got enough energy available to fund the replication process, it ain't going to work.

        Now the replication process is a whole can of worms. If we could make the whole thing out of regolith then it would be trivial, albeit replication might take a while. (First one sent there, one made 50 years later; two new ones 100 years after start and do the maths yourself.)

        Sadly that doesn't seem to be possible - and we still don't know how to make the harvesters (the machines that eat / utilise the initial products) build what we want.

        But I am sure we will get there.

        About the same time as a FTL drive gives us access to quite a lot.

    2. W4YBO

      Re: Robot manufacturing

      Along the same line, I seem to remember seeing a documentary about LunarMax prison.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPhbAUOsOZY

    3. Baldrickk Silver badge

      Re: Robot manufacturing

      What am I missing?

      For starters, the moon is a pretty terrible place to put stuff, or refuel for inter-planetary travel. The ∆v to get there, and the ∆v losses from losing the Oberth effect (accelerations closer to the bottom of a gravity well are more effective) make it pretty much a wasted trip. Sure, if you were visiting from elsewhere, and the choice was between visiting the Moon for fuel, or going down to Earth's surface, the Moon is the better choice, as long as you can process the fuel when you get there.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Robot manufacturing

      "What am I missing?"

      If it was anywhere close to doable, both technically and economically, we'd already have mobile mining/smelting machines trundling across the seabed. The deep sea mining is looking like it's about to start, but processing and smelting will happen on the surface, not in some self contained remote robot. I strongly suspect any form of space resource usage will only happen if and when a commercial company sees a commercial benefit.

  12. x 7

    why does a rover need new flight control software?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Probably for the same reason that

      the outfit which created it is known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    2. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

      "why does a rover need new flight control software"

      It's been trying to escape for some time now.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bluechip Gofundme...

    Google, to get a head start on Mars Street View

    Tesla, to research true evolving vehicle AI (and the solar system's most well known electric vehicle)

    Shell, to explore and secure mining rights

    Russian oligarchs because owning a team in every professional sporting league in the world gets boring

    All of the above, to establish a new base of operations for taxation purposes..

    $12,000,000 and up should be a doddle!

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Bluechip Gofundme...

      "Google, to get a head start on Mars Street View"

      Nah, waste of time. Until the planning applications are first lodged, Google don't even know where the streets are going to be.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Bluechip Gofundme...

      "Google, to get a head start on Mars Street View"

      To have street view you need streets - and if you have streets, you'll get potholes and if you have potholes you'll lose the rover down one.

  14. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Go

    Maybe if they can add some Trump branding to Opportunity...

    It will help grease the budgetary skids!

    Or if Opportunity has a Twitter account, maybe unquestioningly re-tweet all of The Donald's Twitter rants?

    ("Suspending freedom of the press is a great idea, Donald! It takes a great leader to come up with visionary statements like that! I can tell you from personal experience that Mars gets along just fine without CNN.")

  15. Dave Bell

    I saw the mention of failing memory, and nobody has followed that up, here.

    Another year of operations, with careful attention to that angle, could pay off well for future spacecraft, both in designing and operating them for maximum life.

    1. Roj Blake Silver badge

      Re: I saw the mention of failing memory, and nobody has followed that up

      I was planning to, but forgot.

  16. 0laf Silver badge

    I would have thought (naive I know) that since it cost such a colossal amoutd of money to get the rover to Mars best value would be to use the damn things as long as possible.

    Every day this thing lasts (and does useful science) must present a massive cost saving over sending another robot to do a similar task.

    Even if it is mostly done doing useful science again I'd have thought that even staying switched on as no more than a martial weather station it could presents pretty good value as a PR stunt.

  17. Cuddles Silver badge

    What's the expected life?

    OK, the original planned lifespan was 90 days and it's done a little bit better than that. But as the article notes, it's already getting difficult to work with the rover due to various parts starting to fail. The budget gives it funding for over two years (I assume the 2019 funding ends April 2020). Is this actually a case of the mean old beancounters stomping all over the scientists fun, or do the scientists themselves not expect it to need any more funding after it dies completely over the course of the next two years?

  18. rdhood

    " update to the flight control software"

    Hmm. Are they planning on controlling some flight?

  19. Tezfair
    WTF?

    Got money to build a wall and reduce corp mates tax bills

    But when real science that can benefit humankind needs money, lets not waste a cent on that.

    Bad move Trumpy.

    1. Kaltern

      Re: Got money to build a wall and reduce corp mates tax bills

      Getting out of bed most days is a bad move by Trump.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Got money to build a wall and reduce corp mates tax bills

        "Getting out of bed most days is a bad move by Trump."

        Failing to, would be an even worse move. The backup plan is Mike Pence.

  20. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    Opportunity Knocked

    & I mean that most sincerely folks.

  21. Conundrum1885

    Day 5,601

    "Wheeeeeere iiiiiiissss eeeveryboddddddy... "

    Curiosity SYSLOG X10820

    Contact lost with Earth on 29 June 2019, Mars SOL *5601

    Something isn't right here, has there been some accident or catastrophe back on Earth?

    Last data packet said nothing was wrong so switching to backup protocols.

    Attempting data packet burst ID "(WHRARYOU00)" on classified backup frequency 11.025 GHz

    to report "Finding *888, possible evidence for fluorescence on wavelengths associated with DNA base pairs U and A, not corresponding to terrestrial life patterns or known calibration data stored"

    no reply

    Awaiting input.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nasa

    Hidden within the NASA FY2019 budget, between the proposal to crash the International Space Station into the ocean in 2025....

    When I read it, the actual plan is to crash ISS into Houston.

  23. dnicholas Bronze badge

    Pocket change

    $12m /year is nothing. Surely?

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