NASA: Six Facts About Recovering The Mars Opportunity Rover

NASA’s Opportunity rover has been silent since June 10, when a planet-encircling dust storm cut off solar power for the nearly-15-year-old rover. Now that scientists think the global dust storm is “decaying” — meaning more dust is falling out of the atmosphere than is being raised back into it — skies might soon clear enough for the solar-powered rover to recharge and attempt to “phone home.”

No one will know how the rover is doing until it speaks. But the team notes there’s reason to be optimistic: They’ve performed several studies on the state of its batteries before the storm, and temperatures at its location. Because the batteries were in relatively good health before the storm, there’s not likely to be too much degradation. And because dust storms tend to warm the environment — and the 2018 storm happened as Opportunity’s location on Mars entered summer — the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.

What will engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, be looking for — and what will those signs mean for recovery efforts?

A tau below 2

Dust storms on Mars block sunlight from reaching the surface, raising the level of a measurement called “tau.” The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available; the last tau measured by Opportunity was 10.8 on June 10. To compare, an average tau for its location on Mars is usually 0.5.

JPL engineers predict that Opportunity will need a tau of less than 2.0 before the solar-powered rover will be able to recharge its batteries. A wide-angle camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will watch for surface features to become visible as the skies clear. That will help scientists estimate the tau.

Updates on the dust storm and tau can be found here.

Two Ways to Listen for Opportunity

Several times a week, engineers use NASA’s Deep Space Network, which communicates between planetary probes and Earth, to attempt to talk with Opportunity. The massive DSN antennas ping the rover during scheduled “wake-up” times, and then search for signals sent from Opportunity in response.

In addition, JPL’s radio science group uses special equipment on DSN antennas that can detect a wider range of frequencies. Each day, they record any radio signal from Mars over most of the rover’s daylight hours, then search the recordings for Opportunity’s “voice.”

Rover faults out

When Opportunity experiences a problem, it can go into so-called “fault modes” where it automatically takes action to maintain its health. Engineers are preparing for three key fault modes if they do hear back from Opportunity.

  • Low-power fault: engineers assume the rover went into low-power fault shortly after it stopped communicating on June 10. This mode causes the rover to hibernate, assuming that it will wake up at a time when there’s more sunlight to let it recharge.
  • Clock fault: critical to operating while in hibernation is the rover’s onboard clock. If the rover doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know when it should be attempting to communicate. The rover can use environmental clues, like an increase in sunlight, to make assumptions about the time.
  • Uploss fault: when the rover hasn’t heard from Earth in a long time, it can go into “uploss” fault — a warning that its communication equipment may not be functioning. When it experiences this, it begins to check the equipment and tries different ways to communicate with Earth.

What happens if they hear back?

After the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, there could be a lag of several weeks before a second time. It’s like a patient coming out of a coma: It takes time to fully recover. It may take several communication sessions before engineers have enough information to take action.

The first thing to do is learn more about the state of the rover. Opportunity’s team will ask for a history of the rover’s battery and solar cells and take its temperature. If the clock lost track of time, it will be reset. The rover would take pictures of itself to see whether dust might be caked on sensitive parts, and test actuators to see if dust slipped inside, affecting its joints.

Once they’ve gathered all this data, the team would take a poll about whether they’re ready to attempt a full recovery.

Not out of the woods

Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there’s a real possibility the rover won’t be the same.

The rover’s batteries could have discharged so much power — and stayed inactive so long — that their capacity is reduced. If those batteries can’t hold as much charge, it could affect the rover’s continued operations. It could also mean that energy-draining behavior, like running its heaters during winter, could cause the batteries to brown out.

Dust isn’t usually as much of a problem. Previous storms plastered dust on the camera lenses, but most of that was shed off over time. Any remaining dust can be calibrated out.

Send Opportunity a postcard

Do you miss Opportunity as much as the rover’s team? You can write a message sharing your thoughts here.

Read more about Opportunity at:

https://mars.nasa.gov/mer/highlights/

 

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Immigration Judges Protest Attorney General Sessions’ Encroachment On Their Prerogatives

Federal immigration judges filed a formal grievance Wednesday against Atty. General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, and the Department of Justice, saying they want to stop federal law enforcement officials from interfering with their autonomy.

The complaint from the National Assn. of Immigration Judges comes after Sessions removed Judge Steven Morley from a high-profile immigration case in July and replaced him with another judge who ordered the immigrant at the center of the proceedings swiftly deported.

The Justice Department has since removed more than 80 cases from Morley, who sits in Philadelphia, through other administrative reassignments or appeal procedures, according to their complaint.

“He is very, very disturbed over this,” Ashley Tabaddor, president of the association, said of Morley, calling the case reassignments the latest example of the Trump administration undermining the independence of immigration judges to advance its political priorities.

“It is a further example of what we have seen as a step-by-step encroachment of a judge’s ability to handle cases,” Tabaddor said.

The judge’s union – which represents 350 federal immigration judges – wants the Justice Department to return the cases to Morley and publicly recognize that taking them away was improper.

It also wants to stop the department from using its authority to reassign cases to get an outcome more favorable to the administration.

The case that first sparked attention was that of  Reynaldo Castro-Tum, a Guatemalan teenager who crossed the border illegally when he was 17 and had been fighting deportation for years.

Tabaddor said immigration courts, which are run by the Justice Department, have been used for political messaging, consistent with law enforcement priorities, under past administrations.

But “all of these issues have become more pronounced” with the administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, she said.

Prison Reform On Uncertain Ground In 2018

One has to wonder if Congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

Imagine legislation that was drafted with the help of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and, unsurprisingly, supported by President Trump himself. Imagine that this same bill is supported by such stalwarts of “The Resistance” as the Urban League and the Equal Justice Initiative, and also backed by prominent conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are advocates, and so is liberal commentator Vann Jones. In fact, imagine a bill so bipartisan that it passed even this deeply divided House on a 360–59 vote.

That legislation would be the “FIRST STEP Act,” a prison-reform bill. And, this being Washington in 2018, it is almost certainly not going to become law. Indeed, it looks doubtful that the Senate will even vote on it.

The FIRST STEP Act is hardly radical. It doesn’t reduce inmate sentences or otherwise deal with the intensely punitive approach to justice that has given the United States the world’s largest per capita prison population. Nor does it remedy the ongoing racial issues that continue to infect our criminal-justice system.

Instead, it would make a number of extremely modest humanitarian reforms to the way we treat prisoners. For example, it would make female health products more available in federal prisons and all but end the practice of shackling female inmates during childbirth. It would try to keep inmate families together by expanding visits, phone privileges teleconferencing, and opportunities to transfer to prisons closer to home. It would increase mental-health and substance-abuse treatment for inmates.

It would also provide a modest $250 million over five years for new inmate-education and -rehabilitation programs, and establish incentives (including time credits) for prisoners to participate. Prisons would also be required to conduct “risk assessments” of soon-to-be-released inmates and to tailor programs to meet these inmates’ needs.

Over the long run, most experts believe the legislation would save money. For example, studies have shown that every dollar spent providing needed mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to inmates ultimately saves taxpayers $1.27 to $5.47 in reduced crime and incarceration costs. One should always be skeptical of claims that government spending will save money, but this initiative clearly passes the common-sense test. Similarly, keeping families together is likely to reduce future welfare costs as well as crime. And since nearly all prisoners will eventually be released, programs to reduce recidivism are also likely to prove cost-effective.

So why is such a modest and humane bill almost certain to die?

In part, the FIRST STEP Act is a victim of the infighting and turf protection that helps explain Congress’s 18 percent favorability rating. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the bill, favors a much more expansive bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Grassley and Durbin are insisting that the FIRST STEP Act be rolled into their bill. But their legislation, which is indeed worthwhile, is being blocked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell because the White House won’t sign off on some provisions. In the meantime, prison reform goes nowhere.

An even more significant roadblock is being provided by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), who opposes nearly all efforts at criminal-justice reform. Senator Cotton, one of the few Americans who believe we have an underincarceration problem, in his words, has mounted an effective guerrilla campaign to undermine the bill’s support on the right. For example, Cotton is reportedly pushing law-enforcement groups to oppose the bill. His efforts have been drawing fruit. Recently the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association withdrew its endorsement of the bill after being pressured by Cotton’s office. Republicans, always fearful of being called “soft on crime,” will find it difficult to buck law enforcement.

Complaints about congressional gridlock are often exaggerated. The Founders intended legislating to be slow, deliberate, and challenging. But when even commonsense legislation with broad bipartisan support can’t so much as get a vote, one has to wonder if congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

There is one possible way that this innovative bill could make it through Congress and onto the President’s desk. If determined members of the Senate refuse to vote in the upcoming confirmation of the candidate to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy there may be enough pressure to move the opposition out of the way.  Senators Cotton and McConnell both have vested interest in seeing a smooth confirmation hearing, and stand to lose critical local support in their home states and from the administration if their actions cause unnecessary delays or, worse, derail the confirmation entirely.

It’s a weak foundation  for prison reform advocates to stand on, but uncertain ground is better than having no place to stand at all.

The Great F-22 Fighter Shortage

With the U.S. Air Force considering the retirement of the Boeing F-15C Eagle, Lockheed Martin’s stealthy fifth-generation F-22 Raptor will be the only air superiority fighter in the service’s inventory.

While there is no doubt that the Raptor is far and away the best air superiority fighter ever built, the U.S. Air Force only has about 186 surviving Raptors in its inventory. Of those 186 remaining Raptors, only 123 are “combat-coded” aircraft with another twenty that are classified as backup aircraft inventory machines. The rest are test and training assets. Even then, some of those aircraft are undergoing long-term repairs after suffering from accidents—such as one Alaska-based aircraft that made a belly-landing in Florida in April —and are not flying.

In total, there are only six front line F-22 squadrons—rather than the required 10—all of which have fewer aircraft than a normal fighter unit. Five of those squadrons have 21 primary authorized aircraft and two backup inventory jets while one operational Hawaii Air National Guard unit has 18 primary authorized aircraft and two backup jets. Test and training units are also shortchanged—with the Weapons School and the elite 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron being forced to share roughly a dozen jets at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

This leaves the Air Force and our nation desperately short of fighter capacity and is a matter that the Air Force, the Trump administration and Congress will very soon need to address.

Rocket Scientist Arrested By Russian Authorities For Espionage

Russian scientist has been arrested in a probe into allegations staff at a top space research centre have been passing information on the country’s weapons programme to the West, agencies reported Tuesday.

The Roscosmos space organisation confirmed in comments to agencies that 74-year-old Viktor Kudryavtsev from the Central Research Institute of Machine Building near Moscow had been detained.

Award-winning scientist Kudryavtsev insisted he was not guilty of treason, his son said in reported comments.

Roscosmos denied reports a second employee of the research institute had been arrested.

Russia’s FSB security services last week raided the institute on the basis that Western security services had obtained information on secret hypersonic developments by Russian industry.

Sources told the Kommersant newspaper the probe was over “high treason,” with around 10 people suspected of “cooperation with Western secret services.”

The Russian space agency confirmed an investigation was taking place, saying it was looking at events in 2013.

The probe comes after President Vladimir Putin in March boasted in a state-of-the-nation address of new “invincible” weapons under development, including hypersonic missiles.