I read on the Planetery Society blog that it costs USD 25 million this year to maintain the Opportunity rover on Mars and the LRO Lunar orbiter. I would like to see a break down of those budgets. I imagine that the only material thing involved is communication, and I'd guess that the LRO wouldn't even have to use the Deep Space Network, and some skilled planning of the movements. USD 25 million p.a. seems ridiculously much. Where is the hog that bloats this budget?

I don't think it costs USD 25 million/year to maintain two communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit (or does it?) so what is the big difference?

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    $\begingroup$ I imagine a lot of the cost goes to paying people who operate and support the rovers, but I don't have any solid basis for how much - this is just speculation. $\endgroup$
    – Nickolai
    Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ You should not use terms like "ridiculous", "hog", or "bloat" when you haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. What has all that tax payers money spent achieved? A few pictures of red rick and dust. Interesting $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 7:41

3 Answers 3


It's mostly people. Engineers to operate the vehicle and a science team to direct the activities, interpret the results, and write papers. There are also support personnel to keep the ground systems running, testbed personnel to keep the testbeds running and run tests on them. And some management and business people. And a small portion of the budget for outreach activities. After overhead, you need on the order of \$250K to \$300K per full-time person per year. So it's not that many people across two spacecraft.

For MER, new command sequences are developed, validated, and uploaded to the vehicle every day or two, and results from the previous sequences are evaluated every day or two to feed the planning for the next upload. The planning includes detailed designs of drives and arm motions, rock brushing/grinding, operations of cameras and spectrometers, determination of available energy for the day and what activities will fit, determination of the available relay data for the data and prioritization of the data products on that downlink, etc. I could go on, but it's quite the effort. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that they were able to do all that with only $13.2M in fiscal year 2013.

I don't believe that there is a publicly available budget breakdown.

  • $\begingroup$ Is it much cheaper to operate a communication satellite in GEO? And if so, what is the main difference? I've read that there are about 1000 satellites in operation now. They cannot cost $10 million a year each! $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 7:20
  • $\begingroup$ This report from 2003 quotes around \$1.5M/yr for one satellite, and lower numbers for operating several similar satellites with a single team, as low as $0.25M/yr/satellite for more than 15 satellites. The difference is that a communications satellite function is highly monotonous and highly automated. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkAdler -- From that report, Analysts and engineers represent a slightly lower percentage, but generally have higher costs, in the range of $100-130K per annum fully loaded. Seriously? That's the fully loaded cost of a fresh out with but a bachelor's degree (and a subpar GPA), incredibly lousy benefits, and multiple such fresh outs jammed into a single cubical, with shared access to a single computer from a previous millennium. That number is ridiculous. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ That does seem low to me as well, even for 2003. I have to assume though that they did their research. Perhaps the GEO operators strive to get fresh-outs to operate their satellites at the lowest cost possible (probably with one or two experienced people to watch over them), and then graduate the fledglings from there to other jobs. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ Or more likely that people are willing to work for ridiculously lousy salary on a cool project. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 0:26

First of all, the quoted number you provided is actually for both missions, LRO and MER combined, not individually.

The material costs include:

  1. Time on the Deep Space Network.
  2. Bandwidth to serve the data to the public
  3. Some amount of money spent on Public Relations meetings
  4. Occasional team reviews, which are not all located at one location.
  5. Servers for processing the data
  6. Writing new software tools

So before I go in to the costs associated with the program, let me first explain why this is more complex than a communications satellite. Rovers have to do different things every day. Planning is required to figure out how to make it do what is desired, and what overall path the rover should take. Communication Satellites are usually relatively calm, not having significant change from day to day.

From my experience, it takes about 30 full time people to run such a system, and another 5 of them being IT support, at a bare minimum. Why so many? Several will be writing tools to make the work of the team easier, let's call that number 5. Some will be working on planning the next several days operations, let's call that number 5. Another 5 analysing the previous days operations, 5 looking at the health of the spacecraft, 5 taking some sort of leadership/administrative position, and the last 5 doing the first batch of science. These numbers might seem high, but remember that there are multiple instruments that need specific planning, plus the movements and other items. The number of people required to make this happen goes down with time, but it still requires plenty of operations. Plus there is an external scientific team, which all contribute part time to the effort, of which there is around 20 at a minimum.

So let's just say 40 full time equivalent heads, at a standard rate of around \$200K/ person (This factors administrative costs, and is actually a low estimate for skilled personnel). That would give a cost of \$10 million just for the key people, let's say another \$1 million for travel, PR, computing power, and a few million to use NASA's facilities. They also run a engineering unit on the ground, and pay some maintenance fees for the use of the various instruments (To troubleshoot anomalies that might arise). This seems to adequately fill the entire budget budget that NASA provides, \$13.2 million. This seems to match reasonably close to my estimate. Just to give you an idea, even Voyager runs \$5.3 million per year, and they have a team of only 10 people.

I suspect that LRO is similarly priced. While you don't have to drive LRO, you do have to plan for a lot of images, and that requires substantial work. Each instrument will be planning their possible images up to 3 weeks in advance, coordinating with each other team to ensure they can point the spacecraft in the right direction. The team size and cost are thus similar for the two.

Bottom line is, these two spacecraft do an enormous amount of work, for a small amount of money. But I don't think one could reasonably reduce the cost of the missions.

  • $\begingroup$ 40 full time people to run a satellite already in orbit? I sense some kind of problem there! Maybe it could be reduced by a factor of 10 or so? But if it is as you describe, PearsonArtPhoto, then I very much understand why shutting down existing missions is the first priority of NASA. Those 40 highly skilled and highly paid could likely do something more productive with their lives. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ The 40 people is for MER, which has people planning analyzing the previous data, etc. I've actually refined the numbers a bit, giving some idea of how many people are actually required. It's pretty rough, but... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Analyzing data is no part of it. Operating the spacecraft in order to not kill it, is what it is all about. Analyzing the data I'm sure people will do out of the NASA budgets for decades to come. But NASA must pay tens of millions of dollars a year just to not flip the switch which kills it. That's strange. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ Analyzing data is huge part of rover operations. You need to decide where to go and what to do based on what you have found so far. It is a field expedition. A rover is not a lawnmower that you just blindly send out to cover some area (like orbiters are to some extent). $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Mr_leighman: Rovers are an active test bed for an incredible amount of technology. The work that goes into the computer and robotic systems alone are helping drive technological improvements here that makes everyone's life better. See spinoff.nasa.gov/index.html $\endgroup$
    – NotMe
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 15:06

According to this, 1.8 billion out of the 2.5 billion dollar had been spent on sience alone to make this project possible. I didn't find further information on what is causing the current cost, but concluding from the above the sience for this is pretty expensive, just imagine the computation power required to simulate where it's going and the antennas at the ground to control it. Also there are many people hired as ground crew (Source: TV-Documentary) and they're probably quite busy evaluating all the data with their expensive supercomputers.

Of course most of this is speculation, but it's a fact that supercomputers and good scientist are expensive and I don't see another source of costs.

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    $\begingroup$ Wrong rover. The question was about MER and LRO, not MSL. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 21:10

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