Thursday, March 4, 2010

State of the Program

At major meetings of planetary advisory meetings, NASA headquarters gives a state of the planetary presentation.  A couple of readers have written asking me to provide updates on when New Frontiers competitions, etc. are expected to be completed.  So about twice a year I'll summarize the state of the program.  (These updates happen every few months, usually with little change from presentation to presentation.)

The most recent presentation was by James Green, Director of NASA Planetary Science Division, to the Decadal Survey Steering Committee at the end of February.

The biggest news was the proposed FY11 budget, which I've covered in depth in previous blogs.  As a side comment, though, Green said that the proposed budget for about $1.4B was substantially less than the budget for the Solar System Exploration and Mars programs earlier in the decade (when these were two separate programs).  I went back and checked old budgets, and the combined FY04 FY05 budgets for the two programs was $1.9B.  Given inflation, today's budget is a substantial loss in purchasing power.  Unfortunately, the programs that NASA is trying to fit into today's budget -- an aggressive Mars exploration program leading to a sample return, the New Frontiers and Discovery principal investigator led mission programs, and an outer planets flagship mission -- was sized for the budgets of mid last decade.  Something will have to give in the coming decade.

Good News

Here's a list of the funded programs in the new budget:

  • Continued operation of all in 11 in flight missions including Cassini and the Mars MER rovers
  • Juno (Jupiter interior and atmosphere), GRAIL (lunar gravity), Mars Science Laboratory rover, LADEE (lunar atmosphere), MAVEN (Mars upper atmosphere) continue development
  • Continues advanced funding for Europa Jupiter System mission pending recommendation from the Decadal Survey
  • Restart of Pu-238 (if Congress approves; they withheld approval last year)

Mars Science Laboratory on track for 2011 launch with only minor issues remaining. [Am I'm glad to write that at last!]. No major titanium issues found.

Next New Frontiers mission will be selected in April/May 2011 between MoonRise (lunar sample return), OSIRIS-Rex (asteroid sample return), and SAGE (Venus lander)

Final schedule for selection of the next Discovery mission remains open (From the draft Announcement of Opportunity released last December, a downselection to a small number of candidate missions would likely occur by early next year with final final selection in mid 2012 and launch no later than 2016.  However, this is subject to change.)

NASA has committed to the joint mission with ESA for the Mars Trace Gas orbiter and request for proposal for instruments has been released.  (NASA has also agreed to participate in ESA's 2018 ExoMars rover mission.  NASA's current plans are include a capable lander of its own to cache samples for eventual return, but the scope of that involvement presumably is subject to change based on the Decadal Survey's recommendations.)

Not so good news:

The Europa Jupiter System Mission appears to still require Russia to fulfill its contracts to supply additional Pu-238.  Restarted production apparently would not supply new material in time for this mission.  Right now there is enough Pu-238 on hand for a Discovery mission, a lunar network mission, and about half of the Jupiter Europa Orbiter requirements.  [The lunar network mission costs have exceeded expectations, so a small amount of Pu-238 may become available to cover a small part of the JEO shortfall or to power another Discovery-class mission.]

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