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Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Northern Arizona's Ron Idzon lunges to make a play on the ball during a match against Southern Utah in the Aquatic and Tennis Complex Saturday.

Flagstaff scientists reflect on Mars Exploration Rover mission

When opportunity knocks, NASA answers.

Or so it did nearly 16 years ago, when it sent not one, but two rovers to explore the red planet.

Fifteen years into a 90-day mission, Opportunity (“Oppy”) joined her twin, Spirit, in the unresponsive state after her solar panels were obscured by one of the most severe dust storms ever recorded on Mars. Similar to naval ships of exploration, both Spirit and Oppy were often referred to by team members as female characters.

Oppy was declared dead by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Feb. 13, ending the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) mission that not only determined the historical presence of water on Mars, but also helped launch an era of continuous planetary exploration.

Oppy was not a distant machine, but rather considered a colleague of numerous local scientists.

Ken Herkenhoff with the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center was the principal investigator for one of the cameras onboard the rovers. The end of the mission also served as the end of 20 years of hard work.

“It was a sad day. It wouldn’t be fair to my kids to say it was like losing a child, but I put so much time and effort into this spacecraft that it did feel like the loss of a family member when we didn’t hear from them again,” Herkenhoff said.

Research geologist Lauren Edgar, though she spent less time with the rover than Herkenhoff, said she was still closely connected with her.

Edgar started work with the MER rovers when she was a graduate student, and continued to do so for about 11 years though the USGS. She said, though team members knew Oppy would not recover after the storm, she still shed tears during the final meeting.

“I’ve been working on this mission for so long. I’ve been working on it longer than I have known many of my colleagues and good friends,” she said.

It seemed challenging not to be fond of the rover that lived up to her name.

When problems arose prior to the landing in 2004, Spirit was launched before her sister, contrary to the initial plan, Herkenhoff said, putting Oppy in a position for prime discoveries.

Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, MER’s Principal Investigator, famously called the landing an “interplanetary hole in one” because the rover landed in a small impact crater easy to maneuver out of and where she discovered hematite, a mineral typically formed in water.

Like Herkenhoff and Squyres, Alicia Vaughan was also involved in the mission at the beginning. She worked at JPL and the USGS for years before teaching the lessons she learned at BASIS Flagstaff, where she now serves as director of student affairs.

“We always said Opportunity was the lucky one, blessed from the beginning,” Vaughan said. “We could spend a whole day driving and travel a long way and we could never do that with Spirit because it was much more challenging terrain with boulders and hills to climb.”

The work of the two rovers together helped reveal the diverse terrain on the planet, said Jennifer Hanley, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory who researches the stability of water on Mars.

She said the twin rovers helped scientists differentiate areas on the surface of the planet as close, but as diverse as Flagstaff and Phoenix.


Flagstaff scientists had a continued presence in the daily operations of Oppy from the beginning, assisting with both downlink and uplink operations for the various tools carried by the rover. Some even lived on Mars time to do so.

For the first 90 days of the mission, the team worked out of JPL in Pasadena, California. Each day, conference rooms were packed with scientists and engineers eager to make the most of the rovers’ limited time.

Martian days are about 40 minutes longer than Earth days, so scientists working at JPL would have to continually adjust their shifts to match the different cycle, relying on blackout curtains to get sleep when it was light outside.

In a story about her time on the mission, Vaughan wrote she and her dog both struggled with Mars time.

“He did not understand why… I would come home and sleep all day while he barked at the world outside,” she wrote.

Herkenhoff said the team willingly fought against the nine-to-five schedules of Californians to get to and from the lab for each Martian day.

“A colleague and I figured we were working about 100 hours a week and just loving it. We were living on MER,” Herkenhoff said.

When the team realized the mission would be lasting longer than expected, they transitioned to remote work. Many downlink and uplink duties were performed from Flagstaff from that point forward.

Downlink included assessing all data collected by the rover the previous day, the rover’s health and ability to perform commands the next day.

Ryan Anderson, a physical scientist at the USGS, joined the mission in 2007 and helped with downlink by assembling and preparing photographs captured by the rover’s panoramic camera (“PanCam”) for analysis.

“It was so cool to know I was one of the first few people to see a picture from another planet,” Anderson said.

Uplink occurred when the team built a package of engineering and science commands for the rover to perform the following day, depending on how much dust was on the solar panel and, therefore, how much power was available.

By the end of the mission, the team had hundreds of prebuilt commands to choose from, including even those needed to free the rover from sand traps.

The commands were applicable to all of the rover’s tools and cameras like PanCam and the Microscopic Imager (MI), Herkenhoff’s specialty, which captured magnified photographs of rocks.

Each day, the team learned how to better angle the cameras and maneuver the rovers – backwards like a rolling suitcase was often preferred to reduce strain on the rovers. The team also marked milestones along the way, like the completion of the first marathon on Mars in 2015, and shared them with the public.


Though the MER mission ended, Spirit and Opportunity inspired a legacy of Mars research that will continue far into the future.

Edgar, Anderson and Hanley said they both were inspired to dive deeper into interplanetary science because of the rovers. Those who worked on the MER mission were also involved with the Curiosity rover launched in 2011 and Mars 2020, the next rover mission.

“Now, for the foreseeable future, we have rovers that are going to Mars and going to be active,” Anderson said. “That attitude is thanks to MER and the fact that Opportunity lived so long that we’re used to this continued presence on the surface.”

This presence allows researchers to gather information about both the long-term history and seasonal storms, information that will be essential to future missions.

"Understating these dust storms is important," Hanley said. "If we want to have human habitations and landings at some point in the future, we need that long record of ups and downs in seasonal dust storms.”

Unlike the newest rovers, which run on nuclear power that will eventually run out, if the solar panels of the MER rovers were to receive enough power, a revival – though unlikely – could be possible.

Janet Richie, a cartographic technician at the USGS, wrote in an email, "The inability to communicate with Opportunity due to Mars' extreme weather does not mean that human explorers will not someday resuscitate or retrofit one or all salvageable Martian rovers. The beauty of it could be the rovers' second life of exploration along with their human companions, and our good-byes may not be eternal."

Region’s first Dream Court effort between city, FPD and local church

In two months, officers with the Flagstaff Police Department will all be carrying new items in the trunk of their patrol vehicles: basketballs.

April 28 is the date set for the ribbon cutting of northern Arizona’s first Dream Court, a new state-of-the-art basketball court that will be a safe haven for community youth to play with peers and police officers.

The Dream Court will be located outside of Cogdill Recreation Center on Paseo del Flag off of South Lone Tree Road, at The Boys and Girls Club of Flagstaff.

“The location of the Dream Court will make it especially accessible to residents of Brannen Homes and the west side,” interim deputy city manager and former police chief Kevin Treadway said.

But it won’t just be the west side of town that will get to experience playing one-on-one with the officers. Treadway said that the basketballs provided to the officers through Pine Canyon will encourage them to “stop anywhere in town and spend a few minutes shooting hoops with youth as time allows.”

Mark Cox, Boys and Girls Club of Flagstaff CEO, said he is “ecstatic and humbled” the club was chosen as the location for the Dream Court.

“Our youth in the community love using our outdoor space all times of the year. Our mission is to provide a safe space for youth to come play and have fun, in this case through sports,” Cox said. “It is not only beneficial for our youth, but the community as a whole.”

Cox said that the Boys and Girls Club staff will invite any youth to come by the court and join in activities they may be having that day, including those with their athletic director, Flagstaff local and professional basketball player Kiki Lockett.

 “We are so lucky to have her on our team... to help coach our youth and develop all the skills necessary to excel not only in basketball, but in life,” Cox said of Lockett.

Magic Beginnings

The Dream Court is the brainchild of Nancy “Lady Magic” Lieberman, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame who played for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury in the 90s and currently coaches and broadcasts.

According to her website, Nancy Lieberman Charities is “dedicated to expanding and ensuring that educational and sports opportunities exist for economically disadvantaged youth.”

More than 60 Dream Courts have been built around the country, including one in downtown Phoenix in 2015 that honors Muhammad Ali and was dedicated by his widow, Lonnie Ali.

The Dream Court being built in Flagstaff will be the second in Arizona. The proposition of a Flagstaff Dream Court was brought up in the spring of 2017 in a community support meeting held by the Flagstaff Police Department, in which Treadway asked the attendees for ideas on bridging the relationship between the FPD and Flagstaff community members.

Pastor Landon Merrill of Covenant Church off Lake Mary Road had heard about the Dream Courts from his professional basketball friends he acquired playing basketball in college and as an athletic director in Lake Havasu. Merrill was quick to suggest making a Dream Court in Flagstaff.

“One of the things that I had a heart for was to show our community our wonderful police officers in a positive light,” Merrill said. “The good people that are doing a tremendous job. That make our city feel so safe and homey and warm, instead of ‘we live in a rough area.’”

Merrill said his suggestion quickly went from “this is a stellar idea,” to “how do we make this happen?”

What was needed to make the Dream Court a reality was $35,000. Merrill enlisted the help of his church members and they raised the funds by the end of 2018.

Merrill hopes to hold yearly clinics for kids who use the Dream Court with basketball players from Northern Arizona University.

“We have a handful of coaches and a bunch of players that go to the church and so they’ll all be there to cut the ribbon, so that’ll be fun,” Merrill said.

Reviving the Night Court

In 2015, a night court program was set up in the Hal Jensen Recreation Center for youth to be able to play basketball in a safe area from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., rather than roaming the streets in Sunnyside. Like the Dream Court, the program at Hal Jensen welcomed FPD officers to join in and play basketball with the kids.

Danny Neal helped put the night court program together to alter the perception area kids had of police, and vice versa.

“If [kids] saw police, it was a bad situation. This was a chance for kids to see officers in a positive light,” Neal said.

Playing basketball broke the tension between the two groups, Neal added. Unfortunately, the night court dwindled down in 2017 after there weren’t as many dedicated officers patrolling the Sunnyside area, he said.

But Treadway said the Dream Court might be a nice place to reorganize the night court events for the west side.

Not only will the Dream Court be an asset to the Flagstaff community, Treadway said, but it will “provide another opportunity for FPD officers to engage with residents in a way that encourages building relationships and rapport.”

As for the officers’ basketball skills? You’ll have to come to the opening to find out, he said.

Viola Awards winners announced Saturday night

Saturday night's 11th annual Viola Awards at the High Country Conference celebrated Flagstaff's best in the arts and sciences as it recognized artists, educators, organizations and leaders in the community.

Determined by past winners and experts in the respective fields, nine winners walked away with awards during the gala.

Nominated alongside two other performances, NAU Lyrical Theater: The Magic Flute won for excellence in performing arts. Jesse Sensibar won the top prize for excellence in storytelling for his book, Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway. Among four nominees, Julie Comnick's Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra won in the category of excellence in visual arts. In excellence in music, David Strackany and The Song Diary Part II won after being nominated with four other finalists. Lastly, Carli Giese took home the award for emerging artist.

In the education categories, Thomas Elementary School's Kathy Marron won for excellence in arts education and Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy's Rich Krueger won for excellence in science education.

For the two community impact categories, Bonnie Dumdei from the Flagstaff School of Music won the individual impact award. Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra: Link Up earned the honor for community impact as an organization.

Named after Viola Babbitt, a painter and long-time advocate of the arts, the annual event began in 2009.

'Sanctuary' cities are getting their grants despite threats

MONTPELIER, Vt. — About 18 months after the Trump administration threatened to withhold law enforcement grants from nearly 30 places around the country it felt weren't doing enough to work with federal immigration agents, all but one have received or been cleared to get the money, the Justice Department said.

In most cases, courts chipped away at the crackdown that escalated in November 2017 with letters from the Justice Department of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to 29 cities, metro areas, counties or states it considered as having adopted "sanctuary policies" saying those policies may violate federal law.

Of those 29 jurisdictions — which include cities as large as Los Angeles and as small as Burlington, Vermont — only Oregon has yet to be cleared to receive the grants from 2017, a Justice Department spokesman told The Associated Press this week.

Vermont officials announced Monday that they had been told the state Department of Public Safety would be getting $2.3 million in law enforcement grants that had been blocked. Vermont had not joined any of the legal cases, instead corresponding directly with the Justice Department.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, declared victory, saying the money would be used primarily on anti-drug efforts.

"State and local law enforcement agencies already are stretched thin, and withholding these federal grants only makes their work more difficult," Leahy said in an email to the AP. "It's unthinkable that the Trump Justice Department would hold these funds hostage over an unrelated dispute on immigration policy."

Last summer, the U.S. Conference of Mayors sued in Illinois on behalf of its member cities focusing on the issue. In September, a federal court temporarily blocked the Justice Department from withholding the funds for the jurisdictions represented by the conference.

The conference's litigation is now focused on making the order affecting the 2017 grants permanent and apply to 2018 grants, as well, said Kate O'Brien, a Chicago attorney who represented the mayors.

Other federal courts have ruled against the Justice Department. Similar cases are being litigated across the country, and the Justice Department is considering appealing some unfavorable rulings.

The Trump administration has long argued that places that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities, often called "sanctuary cities," pose a threat to public safety.

"I continue to urge all jurisdictions under review to reconsider policies that place the safety of their communities and their residents at risk," Sessions said in a statement in January 2018. "Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law."

The details differ by jurisdiction, but the Justice Department felt law enforcement agencies in those communities weren't sufficiently committing themselves to cooperating with federal immigration agents when officers came in contact with people who might not be in the country legally.

Aside from confirming the clearance of grants to the 28 jurisdictions , Justice Department spokesman Steven Stafford declined to comment.

Some, but not all, of the 28 jurisdictions were cleared for the grants without changing the policies that triggered the original concern from the Justice Department, now led by Attorney General William Barr. And not all of the places actually have the money in hand yet, or have been told they've been cleared to get it.

Ken Martinez, the county attorney for Bernalillo County, New Mexico, said officials there had yet to hear about 2017 grant funding and are eager to get it.

"It will be incredibly helpful," Martinez said. "I can tell you there's been a high level of frustration from people on both sides of the issue."

In West Palm Beach, Florida, the Justice Department was concerned about the wording of a city resolution dealing with police investigations involving citizenship or immigration status. A year ago, a memo was sent to city employees saying they "may" share information with federal authorities.

"So no funds (were) lost on our end," said police Sgt. David Lefont, noting the total was less than $100,000.

That some of the threatened cities ended up changing their policies amounts to at least a partial victory for the Trump administration, said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center For Immigration Studies, which advocates for tight restrictions on immigration.

"What it looks like to me, the Trump Administration is not able to fully enforce cooperation with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to the extent they would like to, but it is able to fully enforce compliance with existing federal law that some sanctuary jurisdictions have had to change their policies in order to get their money," Vaughan said.

But other jurisdictions were cleared to get the money without having to change anything.

"The court in our cases, and in similar cases throughout the country, has found the attorney general is not authorized to impose these conditions," said O'Brien, the attorney for the mayors' group.