NASA says it wants to save the Mars Opportunity rover, but some close to the mission doubt itSeptember 1, 2018
On Thursday, NASA announced a new plan for attempting to recover Opportunity, the Mars rover that has been unresponsive since it was caught in a major dust storm earlier this summer. But some people who work on Opportunity believe that NASA is instead preparing to give up on the longest operational Mars spacecraft because it might be too expensive to rescue.
The Opportunity rover landed on Mars in 2004 with just three months worth of planned work. Fourteen years later, the rover has traversed about 30 miles of Martian surface. Over that time it survived some scares, including a previous dust storm in 2007. But the storm it faced this summer was the most massive one Mars has seen in decades.
Opportunity last communicated with ground controllers on June 10th, right before the global dust storm consumed the Red Planet. The storm blotted out the sun on Mars and left the solar-powered Opportunity gasping for energy. Opportunity relies on its solar panels to gather enough energy from the Sun each day to recharge its batteries, which help power its movement. In turn, the rover’s movement keeps the spacecraft warm. (The rover is equipped with dedicated heaters, but they need battery power to operate as well.) Without sunlight, the rover is essentially in a coma.
NASA has spent most of the summer waiting for the storm to abate, as communicating through the dust was impossible. That means the agency, and the world, have been waiting to find out whether the rover will ever wake up again.
Today’s plan is the most concrete recovery scheme yet. As soon as the storm dips below a specific intensity, NASA will start sending commands to the rover — using the Deep Space Network of antennas stationed around the globe — for 45 days. If the rover answers, NASA will check its health and start to bring it back online. But if it doesn’t respond, NASA says it “will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover.”
NASA won’t completely give up after those 45 days. The agency will spend “several months” doing “passive listening” in hopes that enough dust clears off of the rover’s solar panels to wake Opportunity. The agency points to the common appearance of “dust devils” on Mars, which occasionally come close enough to the spacecraft stationed there to clean off solar panels and other instruments.
These so-called “cleaning events,” NASA says, have previously helped increase the battery level of Opportunity and its now-dead sister-rover Spirit, so that could happen again. But NASA says it believes it is “unlikely” that there’s “a large amount of dust” on the solar panels. If that’s the case, there’s not much that one of these cleaning events can do to help.
People close to the mission disagree with the official stance, however. The press release is dishonest, says a person who works with Opportunity who requested anonymity because they’re not authorized to speak. Judging from measurements taken by the Curiosity rover (which is nuclear powered), the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere has dropped quickly, the person says. While in one sense that’s a good sign that the storm is letting up, it means much of the swirling dust most likely dropped straight down — including onto Opportunity’s solar panels.
If this is indeed the case, Opportunity’s recovery might depend more on a lucky brush with a dust devil than NASA is letting on, this person says.
And that means there’s a timing problem: dust devils won’t start frequently appearing on Mars until a season change around November, according to another person close to the mission. So dust devil season could be well after the 45-day active communication period ends. If Opportunity’s solar panels get blown clean, but NASA is only passively listening for a signal, and not sending it “wake up” commands, the rover might just sit there helplessly.
Members of Opportunity’s engineering team recommended a different plan, the person close to the mission says. Their idea was to actively try to communicate with Opportunity until the end of January 2019 — the end of the seasonal cleaning period. After that, they suggested passive listening until the end of 2019. But these recommendations were ignored by management in order to save money, this person says, meaning the agency could be risking abandoning a still-functioning rover. The Opportunity team reportedly didn’t receive formal notice of the plan until “minutes before JPL published its press release,” according to The Atlantic.
John Callas, the project manager for Opportunity, said in a statement to The Verge that “all engineering teams, as well as other Mars exploration experts were consulted and participated.”
“We are a team of strong opinions, and there are some differences. But, that’s what makes good engineering decisions and has made us successful all these years,” he said. Callas added that every milestone in NASA’s plan (such as when the 45 day period ends) an “additional discussion and review” will happen in order to consider any new information.
Whatever happens next, NASA’s plan to move forward has sparked strong reactions from the space community on Twitter, including people who used to work with Opportunity.
NASA’s plan is “100% Grade A B.S.,” former Opportunity flight director Mike Seibert said on Twitter. “[T]he amount of time given to recover Opportunity is woefully insufficient. Whomever made this decision is a coward.” Someone at NASA “has to be trying to kill the mission for non-technical reasons,” he said.
“I will guaran-damn-tee you this decision is not consistent with the engineering recommendation from the team,” Scott Maxwell, a former Opportunity operator, tweeted. “They’re far too good at their jobs to have crafted anything so ridiculous.”
Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor at The Planetary Society, attempted to start a hashtag campaign on Tuesday when she tweeted: “it is EXTREMELY URGENT that if you care about our loyal Mars rover, you tweet TONIGHT the hashtags #WakeUpOppy #SaveOppy.” Her tweet kicked off a rush of support for the rover, with scientists and fans alike sharing photos taken by Opportunity of the Martian surface.
“Thanks to everyone who responded to the call for support last night,” she wrote the next day. “I don’t know if your help achieved its ultimate goal, but I do know that Opportunity team members at least have heard your voices. Sorry to be vague. I’ll explain in the future if I’m permitted to.”