NASA’s Mars rover might need private funding. The ongoing Congress debate on the United States fiscal 2016 budget might have some unfortunate consequences for NASA’s mission on Mars. Space agency officials claim their Mars Rover Opportunity and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions will both face significant budget cuts for next year.
According to recent media reports, the current compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the Congress leaves no funding for any of the space missions. However, experts close to the projects think neither of them is in real danger. Although specialists agree that no federal funds will be directly allowed to NASA’s enterprise, the cost of the missions can and probably will be covered from the White House yearly complementary budgets.
It is not the first time Opportunity and LRO are facing budget cuts that could potentially endanger the survival of the missions. The same matter comes into Congress’ attention before every year’s budget approval. On some occasions NASA’s space missions were completely cut off from federal funding, but the space agency managed to fill the gap from private donations.
The Mars rover has been present on the Red Planet well beyond its initial three-month objective. It’s been eleven years since Opportunity and its twin Spirit first landed on the planet, in early 2004. Since then, more than 100,000 pictures were sent back to Earth, some of them gaining intense media coverage.
The data not only offered an immense research basis, but ordinary people became increasingly attached to the fate of the robot Mars explorer. NASA officials say they are now prepared to use both scientific and personal arguments to persuade private donors to contribute to their projects.
According to the latest NASA evaluation, Mars missions in general – not just Opportunity – are some of the most cost-effective scientific projects. The scientific value of the data they send back to Earth has no comparison. Also, NASA estimates it would be a more rational decision to make sure the current missions are kept alive, than to cancel them and start again from scratch. “It is far more cost-effective to discover new ways to work with current devices than to release new components,” the evaluation concluded.
As far as it goes for the other endangered mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, this one too has been working overtime for six years now. Expected to study the Moon for one year only, the LRO is still trying to figure out if the Earth’s satellite was ever capable of supporting life. Unfortunately, its bi-static radar broke down a while ago, and NASA claims it does not have the necessary funding to repair it.
Until it comes with a better plan, the space agency will still be able to make us of the $35 million White House funding, part of the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” program. However, NASA will have to prioritize its funding for the many projects it has in plan for the next years.
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