Cropped version of Opportunity's view to Marathon Valley. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Stuart Atkinson

Feb 17, 2015 What’s ahead for Opportunity on Mars?

Sen—NASA’s world famous Opportunity rover has embarked on her next great adventure on the Red Planet—in search of significant deposits of “mineral treasures” that could yield the greatest science discoveries yet in her storied research career.

But whether she will be able to fully investigate those “treasures” depends not only on surviving the bitterly harsh winter chills of the Antarctic like climate on Mars on a daily basis, but also on the harsh budget climate in Washington, DC, that is equally ferocious.

The six wheeled robot just celebrated her 11th anniversary on the Red Planet, atop a Martian mountain on Jan. 24, 2015 that counts as the highest peak she will ever reach. That took place 132 months into her expected 3 month mission. Today she exceeds 3935 Sols, or Martian days of unparalleled exploration and discovery.

“Opportunity has continued to amaze us all and defy the odds in its longevity,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told Sen in January.

Barely a week later, NASA’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal was rolled out by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden amounting to $18.5 Billion, or half a billion dollar increase over 2015.

Bolden proclaimed the “Journey to Mars” as NASA’s top priority with the goal of dispatching human expeditions in the 2030s. “NASA is firmly on a Journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation,” Bolden stated during a “State of NASA” address on Feb. 2. 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.

He outlined how “increasingly advanced robotic explorers have studied the Red Planet. This has dramatically increased our scientific knowledge and helped pave the way for astronauts to travel there.” And from a perch on the summit of Cape Tribulation the Opportunity rover looked out far and wide, gathering a spectacular panoramic vista looking across the plains of Meridiani and the vast expanse of Endeavour crater. Cape Tribulation sits on an eroded rim segment at the western edge of Endeavour, a gigantic 22 kilometer wide impact crater.

Now the 11 year old rover has moved on and away from the mountain top at the dawn of Year 12, making tracks towards caches of phyllosilicate clay minerals that formed in environmental conditions on ancient Mars that were much less harshly acidic than most of the spots investigated thus far and thereby are more conducive to the formation of Martian life forms, if they ever existed.

Opportunity is speeding along and will soon achieve an Olympic marathon runners distance. Any Sol now she will break through the tape and surpass the marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers (26.219 miles) on her way to an area called “Marathon Valley” and a small impact crater named “Spirit of Saint Louis Crater.”

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11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. Map shows entire path driven by rover during 11 years on Mars and over 3926 Sols since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan. 24, 2004 to current location just beyond Cape Tribulation summit at western rim of Endeavour Crater near Marathon Valley. Rover marked 11th anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance—indicative of a habitable zone—and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Spirit of Saint Louis’ crater lies at the entrance to “Marathon Valley” and is the gateway to the phyllosilicates. Marathon Valley is home to majestic Martian cliffs and the motherlode of clay minerals, as seen vividly in our mosaics herein created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo. “Its named ‘Marathon Valley’ because the rover will have traveled one marathon’s distance to reach it,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University told Sen. 

Opportunity is now less than 200 meters away from achieving the marathon as of mid-February 2015. 

And despite some issues with the on board flash memory that forced a new way of working, the golf cart sized robot continues to function just fine, conducts ongoing science operations and drives normally several times per week, just as she’s been doing throughout more than a decade on the Red Planet.

During his speech, Bolden also outlined the robust role of our robotic emissaries on the Road to the Red Planet. “In 2020 a new rover building on the incredible success of Curiosity will help us prepare for human arrival at Mars.”

Opportunity is leading the charge and on the cusp of new and exciting findings relating to Martian habitability at Marathon Valley. But to get to the valley laden with minerals she first has to drive to her next stop at “Spirit of Saint Louis Crater.” “We will go to the crater first,” Arvidson told me. The crater is uphill and west of the valley. “Then Opportunity enters the valley from west to east.”  Where exactly are the minerals located in Marathon Valley? “The clay minerals are on the valley floor,” Arvidson replied.

The panoramic views taken by Opportunity as she descends between the valley walls are certain to be absolutely breathtaking.

So it will take some additional time and careful driving effort reach to reach the minerals because the rover is still nearby the summit of the mountain at Cape Tribulation. A simple look at the mosaics reveals the thrilling but somewhat daunting task ahead. The rovers handlers will have to find a safe path down to avoid slippery slopes.

Unfortunately, there’s not a dollar to be found in NASA’s proposed 2016 budget. “NASA plans to end Opportunity operations by FY 2016,” according to NASA’s FY 2016 budget document proposed by the Obama Administration. Funding will be “zeroed out” perhaps as soon as late September 2015 when the current budget expires.

“The ’16 request does zero out funding for Mars Opportunity in 2016 and assumes that it ceases operations,” says David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer.

So time and money may well run out on Opportunity before she can truly investigate the big deposits of clay minerals on the floor of Marathon Valley inside Endeavour crater.

The question is, will she get it? Will Opportunity be allowed to take advantage of this enormous science ‘opportunity’ years in the making to fully complete her investigations and mission? 

The Obama Administration tried to “zero out” funding for Opportunity in the FY 2015 budget as well. But funding was eventually allocated by NASA to continue operations after an independent science review panel gave the scientists extended mission plan a grade of “excellent/very good.” The rover received $14 million in funding in FY 2014.

Survival on Mars is never assured and it’s hard to predict how long the rover requires to reach the bottom of the valley. One thing for sure is the research won’t be done by the currently proposed September 2015 deadline. 

A bright future beacons unless the budget axe falls. What’s ahead for Opportunity on Mars? Stay tuned.