The American Geophysics Union's Fall meeting is really an assortment of scientific conferences. I go for my professional interests, the remote sensing of vegetation structure. Once there, I always stay an extra day to take in sessions on planetary exploration. This year, future planetary exploration was an added theme in support of the ongoing Decadal Survey. Many of the posters and presentations covered topics already discussed on this blog. A few were new, and I'll summarize these over 2 - 3 blog entries.
An entire session was devoted to updating the planetary community on the progress being made by the focus panels. Steve Squyers, chairman of the overall Survey, gave an overview of the process. A Steering Group oversees the entire process and has two responsibilities. The first is to look at issues that cut across all planetary programs. At the last meeting (notes and presentations have yet to be posted), it looked at plans for the Deep Space Network, the plutonium supply (no good new there), and launch vehicle costs (rising rapidly, reducing money for spacecraft and science). The next meeting will look at technology readiness. The second responsibility of the Steering Group will be to look at the prioritized list of missions from each focus group to select a final list of missions to recommend to NASA. The focus groups are scheduled to deliver their recommendations this coming May. The Steering Group will publish a draft recommendation in the second half of 2011 with a final report in the first half of 2012.
A member (usually the chair) of each focus group delivered a short summary of the group's key scientific questions and a list of missions it is examining for possible recommendation to the Steering Group. Missions that are not well defined are assigned to the Rapid Mission Assessment (RMA) process to provide a baseline definition. Missions that are better defined, either from previous work or an RMA, can be selected for an independent cost assessment. All recommended missions must go through the independent cost assessment.
For the rest of this entry, I'll list the missions that each group is assessing:
Inner Planets (Mercury, Venus, the moon): Lunar south pole sample return, Venus in situ surface explorer (VISE), Mercury lander, lunar seismic network; two other missions are likely to be added: a lunar volatiles mission and a Venus climate mission. It wasn't clear which missions were in the RMA versus cost assessment stages.
Mars: The candidate missions for Mars have been well studied so the list is familiar to anyone following this blog: Trace Gas Orbiter (this mission may be grandfathered in as a committed mission by the publication of the Decadal Survey report), the MAX-C rover that would be the first element of a three part Mars sample return and that would collect and cache samples, a Mars network mission focusing on geophysics with some meteorological studies, and the remainder of the Mars sample return missions.
Giant Planets (not including their moons): Missions here are not well defined, so the proposals are in the RMA stage: A Neptune/Triton/Kuiper Belt Object flyby mission with options for a Neptune entry probe and/or nano probes that would study Neptune's magnetosphere from multiple locations; a Uranus orbiter, and a Saturn probe mission. One issue missions to giant planet and their moons would share may be a dependency on ASRG power supplies as plutonium supplies dwindle. These power sources are rated for 17 years of life after assembly. By the time launch arrives, 14 years of life are left. Missions to the outer solar system can often take as long as 10 years or more to arrive at their destination, leaving only a handful of years for study.
Outer Planet Satellites: Io observer; Ganymede orbiter (if ESA's mission is not selected); Titan lake lander; Enceladus missions including multiply flyby and Enceladus orbiter, lander, and sample return missions.
Primitive Bodies: This presentation did not list a selection of missions because missions to every possible class of targets (Near Earth, main belt, Trojan, and Centaur asteroids and comets) are in competition for the current New Frontiers selection. Presumably the best ideas not selected from the competition will be put forward as proposed missions for the Decadal Survey. (Whichever mission is selected will be grandfathered in as a committed mission and would be outside the scope of the Decadal Survey process.)