As Congress debates NASA’s budget there’s been some talk about pulling the plug on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for more than 10 years. Seattle-based Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs says that would be pure folly.
“We get so much bang for such a little buck for planetary sciences,” Hobbs says. He notes that Opportunity is a mere 600 meters away from what he calls “the promised land of clay” in the Endeavor crater—stratified clay that will give scientists a wealth of information about the geological history of Mars. It’s also a beautiful spot.
“For the photography alone it should be worth going, for the science alone it should be worth going,” Hobbs says. “Put the two together, to me, it’s a no-brainer” to keep Opportunity operating.
Hobbs notes that it’s just such a geological feature that caused scientists to pick Gale Crater as the destination for the Curiosity rover, which should reach its primary target later this year. Hobbs adds that, to some degree, the existence of Curiosity is a threat to Opportunity.
“If they shut down Opportunity it will be a victim of its own success and the success of all the things that JPL does,” he says.
Hobbs says Opportunity also may be a bit of a victim of over-delivering on its promise. The mission was originally slated to last 90 days, in large part because planners—a superstitious lot—didn’t want to jinx the mission by predicting a long life. Hobbs notes that we build robust spacecraft in America, but there’s a lot of uncertainty out in space.
“You’re going into an extreme environment, and who knows what could happen? You could get hit by a meteorite and be vaporized. Mission over right there,” he says. “You could not land, which is actually the biggest risk and why they sent two” rovers to land on Mars in 2004: Opportunity and Spirit, which worked until 2010. The longest anyone dared suggest the twin rovers would last is a year.
“I think everybody assumed that the first Martian winter would kill them,” Hobbs says. “They certainly thought that a dust storm would kill them. It’s blowing everybody away at this point that Opportunity is still around 10 years later. Nobody expected this.”
In fact, he says anyone who had suggested a rover would last for a decade would have been drummed out of the scientific community.
“They would have been dismissed as completely wacko!” he laughs. “Yet, here we are!”
In fact, Opportunity is working better than it has in several years. A recent wind storm cleaned off its solar panels, and they’re generating higher power than they have in a while.
Hobbs has a hunch that Opportunity ultimately will be funded. It’s continuing work on real science and the public’s love for the rover would likely generate an outcry were the plug pulled.