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Spirit Rover is Switched Off to Save NASA Money (Update)

The MER Spirit Rover (credit: NASA)
To save the Mars Expedition Rover (MER) program some cash, controllers will be forced to switch one of the four-year old rovers into “hibernation mode”. NASA wants to cut $4 million from the MER budget, so extreme measures are needed. Sadly, operations will need to be limited and it has been announced today that activities will be stopped on Spirit for the coming weeks. Mission scientists are obviously demoralized.

[UPDATE (03/25/08): NASA has now announced that it has “absolutely no plans” to turn off the Mars rovers, only hours after mission scientists announced they had new directives from the organization to cut $4 million from budget cuts. When more news is forthcoming I will post an article as to what is going on… ]

This appears to be the case of a mission being too successful for its own good.

The MER project was only intended to last for a few months, but the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have surpassed all expectations and continued to explore the planet for four whole years. They are so efficient, that they have braved the worst dust storms, battled through technical issues and even freed themselves from quicksand, there seems to be nothing standing in their way of these super robotic troopers…

Except NASA budget cuts.

When the money runs out, the rovers have to be shut down and this is exactly what is going to happen to Spirit, currently located on a sunny slope at Gusev Crater. Even though the rovers are in the middle of an extensive exploratory phase of the Martian landscape, a NASA directive must be enforced to save $4 million from the project’s $20 million annual budget.

Shutting down Spirit isn’t the only budget-saving measure to be taken. Opportunity’s tasks will now be severely cut; limiting commands to be sent from controllers to every other day, rather than daily.

MER controllers are said to be very demoralized by these measures. Although budget cuts can never come at a “good time”, the timing of this announcement is terrible as both rovers are operating at full strength and still have vast amounts of potential.

The problem is that NASA is currently being stretched to accommodate other Mars missions currently in operation. But when should a highly successful mission like the MER project end? Up till now, most Mars surface missions are good until they break down. In the case of Spirit and Opportunity, neither is showing many signs of breaking. So for now, controllers will have to hover by the “off” switch while budget requirements are met.

Source: PhysOrg.com


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Winson March 25, 2008, 2:45 PM

    Those WMDs are actually hidden on Mars. The Bigfoot captured in that Mars photo is really an Al Quada operative who was moving them to a new location.

  • Chris March 25, 2008, 2:50 PM

    That is the dumbest thing I’ve heard all day.
    $4M is all – what has been spent on the war and what was the return on that investment?

    Waste and government are like two peas in a pod.

    One senators lifetime pension ($250,000.00/yr – for entire lifetime) should cover it.

    I am tired of poor leadership and even poorer decisions. It’s time for change. Knowledge about the Universe is more important than a buck in one persons pocket!

  • Jim B March 25, 2008, 4:57 PM

    It could be worse, they could be shutting both rovers off. I’m sure we could find the money by cancelling some congressman’s “EARMARK”. The Government should be spending our money on something that many of us actually want and indirectly benfeits all of us, rather then wasting the money. Remember all those FEMA trailers from Katrina ? It is time to replace The Government !

  • GBendt March 25, 2008, 4:59 PM

    Usually, space exploration is executed that way:
    A spacecraft is designed and built for hundreds of millions of dollars such that it can perform a certain set of tasks. You bring it into space, activate it and hope that it performs fine and will do exactly the sophisticated job it was designed to do. And if it has done so, you build the next spacecraft for hundreds of millions of dollars, based on the results and the findings obtained from its predecessor, to reach out for the next step.

    Spirit and Opportunity were intended to last within the martian environment for up to three months. But to the amazement of the public and the space engeneering society and beyond, these craft survived and performed in that environment 16 times longer than designed, and they still are in a very good shape.
    As the two rovers performed 16 times longer than was scheduled by their mission designers, the cost of their operation has grown to more than 16 times the cost planned when these rovers were brought to Mars.
    If you want to foster the replacement process of a craft, this task is difficult to accomplish if the craft to be replaced simply refuses to fail. If we want to promote the next generation of rovers, one has to accept that measures have to be taken.

    Space exploration is a means to support and strengthen the space industry. Of course, it is also about science. But its main objective is building spacecraft, not running spaceraft forever, once they are built. And I think doing things this way makes sense.



  • Astrofiend March 25, 2008, 5:20 PM

    marcellus Says:
    March 25th, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    This is cool stuff. I like the “Let’s fund it ourselves” concept.

    Actually, I think that this COULD actually be a goer! I’d be more than happy to drop a few % of my pay into some sort of NASA or ESA ‘fund’ to help with the cost of space missions. I’m absolutely positive, based on the opinions of friends and colleagues, that many others would too. Lots of people derive a great amount of pleasure from the findings and results of space exploration and science missions – in a way it’s akin to a hobby (or an obsession), so I think many would be willing to forgo a little pay for their passion.

    Even if it was only a few % of members of all of the astronomy clubs around the world who contributed a few % of their annual pay packet, we’d quickly have a substantial amount of dough to throw behind projects. In reality I think there would be more than that flowing – those are fairly conservative estimates I imagine. Of course, such a system would raise its own issues like to which projects funds are distributed, but these could be worked out. The fundamental idea remains strong in my opinion.

  • Eduardo Mariño March 25, 2008, 8:26 PM

    No se supone que este país es el ejemplo de la democracia en el mundo? que le pregunten a la gente si quieren gastar sus impuestos en armas, guerra, mentiras y asesinatos o en explorar y conocer mejor el universo, en aprender y valorar mas ese hermoso y unico recurso terrestre: la vida… a que no hacen un ejercicio de democracia, al menos alguna vez…

  • Guy Incognito March 25, 2008, 9:03 PM

    To put it into for perspective for you, we’re spending about four hundred million a day on the so-called war in Iraq.

  • Chuck Lam March 26, 2008, 6:31 AM

    A side thought to those of you who think we are going to set-up a permanent base on the moon, forget it, it aint going to happen. Technically we can do it, bureaucratically, we are really screwed I’d like to remind both the serious thinkers and sci-fi dreamers that our government, specifically NASA, is typically operated very much like FEMA and the Home Land Security bunch Do you remember those infallible agencies and the efficacious jobs they are doing? What is required for the advancement of science is clearly more intelligence, at the top on down, in the critical areas of money and project management that will make a difference. This (MER) nonsense is just the tip of the iceburg.

  • Aqualung March 26, 2008, 5:33 AM

    If life started on Mars. Isn’t there a possibility that beneath parts of Mars there are vast fields of gas and oil waiting to be found.

    There you are. Now there will be no shortage of funds. JD.

  • David March 26, 2008, 6:27 PM

    Good one Aqualung . . perhaps we could find a photo of “Noah’s Ark” sitting out on Cydonia, or a bunch of rocks in the shape of a Grail.

  • Chuck Lam March 27, 2008, 6:54 AM

    Hey everyone! Just what do you expect from the bunch of bureaucratic scienticically boarder-line illiterates making these wild decisions? We clearly require a higher level of common sense and intelligence within the government agencies that directly affect the advancement of science. Make certain you get out and vote for change this November. Gawd! Do we need change!

  • Jim K March 27, 2008, 12:48 PM

    It is interesting to note that the Spirit was the rover that captured the image of the “Bigfoot” on Mars…and is now being shut down weeks later.