NASA Budget Cuts Will Deactivate Mars Rover


Following a $4 million NASA budget cut, one of the twin Mars rovers will be deactivated while the other limited in its activities, mission team members announced Monday.

The budget cut was announced in a letter delivered Wednesday to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, which manages the rovers. JPL plans to appeal the cut.

It costs NASA about $20 million a year to keep the rovers going, and both are now in their fourth year of exploration.  The crafts were initially planned for three-month missions at a cost of $820 million.

The report comes on the heels of budget cutbacks at NASA headquarters, which is struggling to manage both the Mars exploration and projects to study the rest of the solar system.

The twin, solar-powered rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have impressed scientists and the public alike, with discoveries of geologic evidence that water once flowed at or near the surface of Mars.

Steve Squyres, principal investigator from Cornell University, told the Associated Press that last week’s NASA directive to cut $4 million means Spirit will be put to sleep in the coming weeks.

“It’s very demoralizing for the team,” Squyres added.

Prior to the budget cuts, Spirit was due to gather atmospheric measurements as it sat on sunny slope during the Martian winter.   But now, it will stay in hibernation mode for most of the winter and halt all gathering of measurements.

The cut comes amid an extensive exploration campaign by the robots, according to deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis.

“We’re not done. There is still a lot to explore,” Arvidson told the Associated Press.

Besides deactivating Spirit, scientists will likely also have to reduce Opportunity’s exploration, which is currently probing a large crater near Mars’ equator.  Instead of sending up daily commands to Opportunity to drive or explore a rock, its activities may be limited to every other day, said John Callas, JPL’s Mars Exploration Rover project manager.

“These rovers are still viable, capable vehicles in very good health,” Callas told the Associated Press.  “Any cut at any time when these rovers are healthy would be bad timing,”

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