On Thursday, NASA announced a new plan for an attempt to recapture Opportunity, the Mars rover that has not responded since being caught in a major dust storm earlier this summer. But some people working on Opportunity believe that NASA is preparing instead to give up the longest-running Mars spacecraft because it might be too expensive to save.
The Opportunity Robber landed on Mars in 2004 with only three months of planned work. Fourteen years later, the rover crossed about 30 miles of the Martian surface. At that time it survived some fear, including a previous dust storm in 2007. But the storm that faced this summer was the most massive that Mars has seen in decades.
The occasion was the last communication with ground controllers on 10 June, just before the global dust storm consumed the Red Planet. The storm drove the sun out on Mars and made the solar-powered Opportunity yearn for energy. Opportunity relies on its solar panels to collect enough energy from the sun every day to recharge the batteries, which can provide power to the movement. In turn, the movement of the rover keeps the spacecraft warm. (The rover is equipped with special heaters, but they also have to work on batteries.) Without sunlight, the rover is essentially in a coma.
NASA spent most of the summer waiting for the storm to be taken down, because communication through the dust was impossible. This means that the agency and the world have waited to find out whether the rover will ever wake up again.
Today's plan is still the most concrete recovery plan. As soon as the storm falls below a certain intensity, NASA will send commands to the rover – using the Deep Space Network of antennas stationed around the world – for 45 days. When the rover responds, NASA checks the health and starts bringing it back online. But if it does not respond, NASA says it "will have to be forced to conclude that the sunlight-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause a sort of fault that the robber will more than likely not recover. "
NASA will not give up completely after those 45 days. The agency will spend "several months" on "passive listening" in the hope that sufficient dust will be released from the rover's solar panels to arouse Opportunity. The desk points to the usual appearance of "dust devils" on Mars, which occasionally get close enough to the spacecraft stationed there to clean solar panels and other instruments.
These so-called cleaning events & # 39 ;, NASA said, have previously helped to increase the battery level of Opportunity and the now deceased sister-rover Spirit, so that this could happen again. But NASA says it believes it is "unlikely" that there is "a large amount of dust" on the solar panels. If that is the case, there is not much that one of these cleanings can do to help.
However, people in the vicinity of the mission do not agree with the official attitude. The press release is unfair, says a person working with Opportunity who has asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak. Based on measurements made by the Curiosity Rover (which works on nuclear energy), the amount of dust in the Mars atmosphere has dropped rapidly, the person says. Although that is in some sense a good sign that the storm is coming to an end, it means that much of the swirling dust is most likely to fall straight down – including on the Opportunity solar panels.
If this is indeed the case, the recovery of Opportunity can depend more on a happy brush with a dusty devil than NASA is doing, says this person.
And that means there is a timing problem: dust devils will not often appear on Mars until a season changes around November, according to another person near the mission. So the devil season can be good after the active communication period of 45 days. If Opportunity's solar panels are blown clean, but NASA only listens passively to a signal and does not send "wake-up" commands, the rover can just sit there helplessly.
Members of the Opportunity development team recommended a different plan, says the person near the mission. Their idea was to actively try to communicate with Opportunity until the end of January 2019 – the end of the seasonal cleaning period. Then they suggested passive listening until the end of 2019. But these recommendations were ignored by management to save money, says this person, which means the agency risks leaving an operating rover. The Opportunity team reportedly received no formal notification of the plan until & # 39; minutes before JPL published its press release & # 39 ;, The Atlantic Ocean.
John Callas, the Project Manager for Opportunity, said in a statement The edge 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 is what makes good technical decisions and has made us successful all those years," he said. Callas added that every milestone in the NASA plan (such as when the 45 day period ends) will be an "additional discussion and assessment" to consider new information.
Whatever happens next, NASA's plan to make progress led to strong reactions from the space community on Twitter, including people who have worked with Opportunity.
NASA & # 39; s plan is "100% Grade A B.S.", former Opportunity flight director Mike Seibert said on Twitter. "[T]The amount of time he gets to repair the Opportunity is woefully inadequate. Whoever made this decision is a coward. "Someone at NASA" must try to kill the mission for non-technical reasons, " he said.
"I'll justify this decision not in line with the technical recommendation from the team," Scott Maxwell, a former Opportunity operator, tweeted. "They are too good at work to make something so ridiculous."
Emily Lakdawalla, editor-in-chief at The Planetary Society, tried to start a hashtag campaign on Tuesday when she tweeted: "It is VERY URGENT that if you care about our faithful Mars Rover, your TONIGHT will tweet the hashtags #WakeUpOppy #SaveOppy. "Her tweet started a rush of support for the rover, with both scientists and fans sharing photos from Opportunity of the Martian.
"Thank you to everyone who responded to the call for support last night," she wrote the next day. "I do not know if your help has reached the final goal, but I do know that Opportunity team members have at least heard your vote, I'm sorry, I'll explain it in the future if I'm allowed." 39;