The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) missions were flown under a similar program aimed at returning humans to the moon. What's new in this budget proposal is that the list of targets has been expanded to include Mars and the near Earth asteroids.
While these aren't science missions, it's likely that the missions will make measurements that are scientifically useful. LRO will be turned over to the planetary science program in the next few months to become a scientific mission once the primary mission of mapping the moon for future manned missions is completed. Looking ahead, exploring the craters at the lunar poles for ice also would provide valuable scientific data. It's hard to imagine that a mission could explore potential resources at a near Earth asteroid without making composition measurements that also would be scientifically valuable. And all these missions probably would carry cameras, so armchair explorers will get to see new sites in the solar system.
The proposed budgets for these missions is projected to grow considerably to be almost twice as large as the largest planetary science budget item (Mars) and be equal to more than half the entire planetary budget.
Not much information is available at this time on these precursor missions. I've copied the following paragraphs from the Exploration Systems NASA budget document (http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/428356main_Exploration.pdf).
An additional key contributor to a robust exploration program will be the acquisition of critical knowledge gained through the pursuit of exploration precursor robotic missions. These missions will provide vital information—from soil chemistry to radiation dose levels to landing site scouting to resource identification—necessary to plan, design and operate future human missions. These missions will help us determine the next step for crews beyond low Earth orbit, answering such questions as: Is a particular asteroid a viable target for crewed mission? Do the resources at the lunar poles have the potential for crew utilization? Is Mars dust toxic?
NASA will send precursor robotic missions to candidate destinations for human exploration such as the Moon, Mars and its moons, Lagrange points, and nearby asteroids to scout targets for future human activities, and identify hazards and resources that will determine the future course of expanding human civilization into space. Projects will make critical observations, test approaches and operations concepts, and identify specific target destinations directly beneficial to future human space activities. Instruments, destinations and missions will be prioritized based on their utility to future human activities... While there may be some synergies between this program and the Planetary Science theme within SMD, care will be taken to avoid unnecessary duplication. Dedicated precursor exploration missions are planned to remain below $800 million in total cost, and most will be considerably less expensive.
NASA will begin funding at least two dedicated precursor missions in 2011. One will likely be a lunar mission to demonstrate tele-operation capability from Earth and potentially from the International Space Station, including the ability to transmit near-live video to Earth. This will also result in investigations for validating the availability of resources for extraction. NASA will provide opportunities to participate in the payloads and observation teams, and potentially portions of the spacecraft, through open competition.
NASA will also select at least one additional robotic precursor mission to initiate in 2011, and identify potential future missions to begin in 2012 and/or 2013. Potential missions may include:
- Landing on asteroids or the moons of Mars rather than orbiting these bodies would allow us to better determine whether they pose safety hazards to astronauts or contain materials useful for future explorers. Landing can also test technologies that could help future human missions.
- Landing a facility to test processing technologies for transforming lunar or asteroid materials for fuel could eventually allow astronauts to partially “live off the land.”
- In Situ Resource Utilization: NASA will fund research in a variety of ISRU activities aimed at using lunar, asteroidal, and Martian materials to produce oxygen and extract water from ice reservoirs.
- Autonomous Precision Landing: In FY 2011, NASA will initiate development of a flight experiment to demonstrate an autonomous precision landing and hazard avoidance system. NASA will pursue use of this system on the first robotic precursor exploration mission to the Moon or other planetary body.
- Advanced In-Space Propulsion: NASA will work with partners in industry as appropriate, to conduct foundational research to study the requirements and potential designs for advanced high-energy in-space propulsion systems to support deep-space human exploration, and to reduce travel time between Earth’s orbit and future destinations for human activity. These technologies could include nuclear thermal propulsion, solar and nuclear electric propulsion, plasma propulsion, and other high-energy and/or high-efficiency propulsion concepts.
- Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) Technology: NASA will develop and test concepts for large aeroshells and advanced thermal protection system materials to enable aero-capture and atmospheric entry of heavy payloads. These technologies will enable the demonstration of EDL capabilities on future robotic precursor and flagship missions.