The Mars Exploration Rover folks who operate the Spirit and Opportunity robots on the Red Planet have gotten some bad news.
A directive has come from NASA Headquarters to take a 40 percent financial cut in their program — some $4 million in the remaining months of fiscal year 2008, which runs through September.
It could all come down to a financial stun gun for one of the rovers, both still busy at work doing science. Cost to run the Mars twins is $20 million per year. They've been on the Red Planet since January 2004 and are long past their 90-day mission plan.
Steve Squyres, the rover team's principal investigator at Cornell University, said the 40 percent cut would be huge.
"We're rapidly coming to the conclusion that if we have to implement this cut, it's going to mean essentially shutting off science activities for one of the vehicles," Squyres told Space.com.
Safely shutting down a rover on a temporary basis is doable, Squyres said. The move would save money — but at the expense of science as well as team morale, he said. "We're going to go off and look at what our options are ... but I feel confident that we have to essentially halt science operations on one of the two vehicles," he said.
Shadow falls on Spirit
While both robots are healthy and doing good science, it looks like the one to hibernate for the remainder of this fiscal year could be Spirit, Squyres suggested.
The rover team has also been told to expect an $8 million cut in fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1. It would essentially be the same magnitude of cut. At that time, it is expected there would be two healthy rovers both able to move, drive and explore.
"We would have to make some very tough decisions about which one we would hibernate and which one we would keep active. That's a situation I do not want to face ... but that's a future worry," Squyres added.
The message back to NASA Headquarters is that, if the rover program has to take the first cut, there is going to be an impact on science return — and in fiscal year 2009, the impact will be much more severe.
Second thoughts at NASA HQ?
That message may have an effect on the outcome of the budget deliberations. When contacted by The Associated Press late Monday, a NASA spokesman said the agency's administrator, Michael Griffin, did not mean for the budget cuts to force the shutdown of a rover.
"If the scientists are saying, 'The only way we can eat this is by shutting down a rover,' then the administrator says, 'That's not on the table,'" Dwayne Brown, a spokesman at NASA Headquarters, told AP.
Brown did not say whether funding would be restored to the rovers, or whether cuts would be made to other Mars projects for Spirit to keep operating.
Space.com has learned that future operation of NASA's venerable Mars Odyssey orbiter is on the cost-cutting table, too. Odyssey has been in orbit since 2001.
This report was updated with information from The Associated Press.