Sunday, April 29, 2012

Congress Replies



President's proposed budget (solid line) and proposed Congressional changes (dashed and dotted lines) for programs in NASA's planetary science budget that would fund development of new missions in this coming decade.  Sources: President's budget proposal, proposed House bill, and news accounts for Senate version.

In several posts this year, I’ve discussed the impact of the proposed cuts in the spending for future planetary missions in the proposed Presidential budget.  (See this post for an overall summary.)  This year the Congressional budgeting process is moving forward on schedule and we have Congress’evolving  take on the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. 

To briefly recap the President’s proposed budget for planetary exploration, the budget for Mars exploration would be cut by $226M in FY13 compared to FY12.  Mars exploration budgets would continue to drop through FY15 to support peak funding for the New Frontiers OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission and a Discovery mission to be selected this summer.  Then funding for the New Frontiers and Discovery programs would drop dramatically to support a re-invigorated Mars program, call the Mars Next Decade, but one that would not include Mars sample return as a goal.  

There were several major fall outs from this proposed budget:
  • NASA withdrew from joint missions with the European Space Agency to Mars in 2016 and 2018.  (ESA has since replaced NASA with Russia as a partner for these missions.) 
  • The top priority for Flagship missions in the Decadal Survey, Mars sample return, was dropped as a goal
  • No Flagship-scale missions (>$1B) are now planned to be started to any solar system destination this decade
  • The pace of New Frontiers and Discovery missions would be cut well below the goals set by the Decadal Survey.  (For example, the Survey called for starting five Discovery missions this decade; the proposed budgets by my back-of-the-envelop calculations would support starting 2-3 Discovery missions.)
  • The Mars Next Decade program to jointly further the scientific exploration of Mars and to develop technology for exploring Mars was proposed with a first mission, goals to be defined, planned for 2018

As I and many of news sources and blogs have reported, the proposed budget was not well received by either the planetary science community or by Congress. 

The committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate responsible for NASA’s budget have drafted their spending bills and the news for planetary exploration is good.  (NASA’s overall budget would still drop and other NASA programs would receive cuts compared to the President’s budget.  See SpaceNewsfor a good summary of the overall NASA budget picture resulting from the Congressional proposals.)  The Senate bill would restore $100M to the Mars exploration program to be spent on future Mars missions.  The House bill would restore $200M, with $115M going to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs to enable a faster pace of missions and $88M going to a future Flagship mission.  (The remainder of the House increase would go to support research programs in FY13).  The House bill would direct NASA to spend the Flagship money either on a mission leading to a Mars sample return or on a Europa orbiter (the Decadal Survey’s number two priority for a Flagship mission).  The funding available for a Mars sample return money or a Europa orbiter would be $150M, which includes funds the President included for the Mars Next Decade program.  This would be a down payment with significant funding needed in future years to actually build a Flagship scale mission.

At some point this summer, Congress is supposed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill and send the resulting compromise to the President for his approval.  Campaigning for this fall’s election may delay the final bill and Congress may end up passing an omnibus bill that just funds large numbers of agencies at a percentage of the previous year’s spending.  A final spending level closer to the House version would clearly be better for future planetary exploration.

If a version closer to the House bill is the eventual approved budget for NASA, it will be interesting to see how NASA’s managers choose to spend it.  You cannot, for example, take the budget for a $1.5B Flagship mission and just divide it by four to fund it over four years, which is a typical time to develop a new mission.  Rather, spending is low in the first years as the design work is done and peaks in the last year or two before launch as hardware is actually built and tested.  Spending then continues after launch to support mission operations. In planning to use any restored budget, NASA’s managers will have to select and schedule the development of missions to fit in peak spending.  You can see this at work in the chart above as spending for Mars is traded for spending on New Frontiers and Discovery missions and vice versa.

The full language of the House bill pertaining to planetary exploration has been posted at SpaceRef.com; I encourage you to read it (it's about a page long) if you would like more detail. I'll close with a quote of the first paragraph:

Planetary science has long been one of NASA's most successful programs, and the cuts proposed in the budget request will endanger this strong record and deviate significantly from the program plan envisioned by the most recent planetary science decadal survey. The Committee's recommendation of $1,400,000,000 [$200M above the President’s request] seeks to address programmatic areas where the Administration's proposal is most deficient in meeting the decadal survey's goals while also ensuring that the program, as a whole, maintains balance among program elements."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Private Enterprise to Explore and Exploit the Solar System?



The Planetary Resources website.  I recommend watching the videos.

By now, you have probably read about the plans – perhaps ‘ideas’ might would be a better word at this point – of the Planetary Resources company to mine near Earth asteroids.  Backed by several billionaires, the company has deep financial resources and has hired engineers and managers experienced in planetary exploration.

In many ways, the ideas of Planetary Resources managers echo those of the companies formed to find riches in the early era of European expansion.  Private enterprise financed by the wealthy formed the British East India Company and the Virginia Company that backed the Jamestown colony.  Like the financers of Planetary Resources, they used their existing fortunes to build on technology and exploration financed initially by governments.  (See, for example, Prince Henry the Navigator and the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Columbus.) 

Various news outlets have good accounts of the company’s long term plans to find mineral rich near Earth asteroids and mine their resources.  To very briefly summarize their plans, they will first mine the volatiles like water that are essential for extending manned exploration and exploitation of the solar system beyond low Earth orbit.  Then the company will move to mining rare and expensive minerals such as platinum that are essential to high technology products.   I don’t have any particular expertise in mining, especially on remote, airless orbs, and I recommend their articles for analysis of the long term economic possibilities and risks.  Also, I’ve seen no details on how Planetary Resources plans to actually conduct asteroid mining and return materials, and in the absence of information, all commentary would have to be based on speculation.  (For more information, see: Wired Science, New York Times, and Space News.)

Here, I’d like to report on the company’s shorter term plans to develop and launch three classes of spacecraft both as means of gaining immediate revenue and furthering their long term goals.  The company plans to build and lease or sell use of three classes of unmanned spacecraft:

  • A series of LEO (low Earth orbit) telescopes will be launched in the next several years.  The company will use them to analyze the composition of near Earth asteroids, presumably through spectral analysis of the light reflected from the asteroid surfaces.   The telescopes also will be available for hire either for scientific research of space bodies or for imaging the Earth’s surface.  The company states, that “Leo is capable of surveying for near-Earth asteroids during one orbit, then be retasked for rain forest observation on the next. The possibilities for utility and engagement are only limited by the imagination of the user.”  According to the Bad Astronomer blog at Discover Magazine, these will be tiny spacecraft with 22 (9”) aperture telescopes on spacecraft that measure 40 x 40 cm (16”). 
  • The second class of spacecraft, called Interceptors, will be based on the LEO telescope design, but will have, augmented propulsion systems and instrument compliments.  The name implies craft that will flyby near Earth asteroids for a brief but close up look.  Their description suggests, however, that the interception may only occur for asteroids that fly within or near the space of the Earth-moon system.
  • The Rendezvous Prospector craft will have further augmented capabilities beyond those of the Interceptors that will allow them to fly to and orbit near Earth asteroids to study their shape, rotation, and composition.  The brief description discusses the use of multiple Prospector spacecraft to distribute risk.  It’s not clear whether the multiple craft would fly to a single asteroid or to different asteroids.  Given the small size of the LEO telescopes from which the Prospectors will be derived, perhaps each spacecraft will carry a single instrument and a swarm would be needed for a complete measurement of an asteroid’s vital statistics.

The managers at Planetary Resources have released no details that I've found on the specific capabilities and technologies of their unmanned spacecraft.  Their website simply says, “While much of Planetary Resources’ technology is proprietary, our technological approach is driven by a few simple principles to enable innovation in cost. We are incorporating recent innovations in commercial microelectronics, medical devices, and information technology, in ways not traditionally used by robotic spacecraft.”

The website and media accounts do not discuss whether Planetary Resources will make the data from its spacecraft available to the scientific community.   Its managers may decide, as oil companies do with their geological surveys, that such information is proprietary.  Or not.

Editorial Thoughts: We are now into the sixth decade of the space era.  The knowledge and tools to design, test, and build spacecraft have progressed to the point where new private companies can design capable spacecraft.  By new, I mean companies that aren’t part of the traditional government-aerospace industry network that have jointly designed and flown spacecraft since the earliest launches.  Rather I mean companies like Orbital Sciences and Space X that have designed launch vehicles, satellites, and are now working on manned spacecraft.  I find it credible that Planetary Resources could muster the resources to design and fly their unmanned spacecraft and may introduce some clever new ideas.  By using new approaches, keeping their spacecraft tiny and their instrument compliments small, and accepting higher risks of failure, they may do so much more cheaply than the traditional government space agencies and their established industrial partners.

What is less certain is whether or not there will be sufficient numbers of non-government customers to make the unmanned spacecraft a viable business that doesn’t ultimately depend on taxpayer support.  Nor is it clear that governments will want to spend significant funds to support the short and intermediate term scientific capabilities that Planetary Resources has proposed.  Ideas to flyby and orbit near Earth asteroids for scientific research have been proposed many times.  However, the scientific goals for near Earth asteroid missions have progressed beyond simple rendezvous and remote sensing to returning samples of these asteroids to Earth.  Both Japan and the United States have approved sample return missions in development (the second such mission for Japan), and the Europeans are considering a sample return mission.  To be fair, it’s not possible to determine from the information that Planetary Resources has released how much they are depending on selling their services versus funding them through their investors.

If I were to bet, I think that the financial backers of Planetary Resources will choose to make the data they collect on near Earth asteroids publicly available.  The time frame for making a substantial profit is long, and the financiers may be more interested in enabling human expansion into the solar system rather than achieving greater wealth for themselves.

On the long term goal of asteroid mining, it is exciting, but I am skeptical about success in the next few decades.  Much technology and experience has to be gained and financed.  The availability of volatiles mined from asteroids depends on an active space program reaching beyond low Earth orbit.  More efficient use and reuse of rare metals on Earth offers another alternative to dealing with shortages.  In the end, it hard to tell when and who will ultimately make the idea successful.  Great wealth did come from opening up trade routes between Europe and Asia and taking over the resources of the Americas.  However, the companies that initially financed these ventures had a poor record of success.  Look up the reason that Scotland had to give up its independence and become a partner in a new United Kingdom with England.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Good News Times Three!

In addition to my previous post this morning with two pieces of good news, we now have a third.  A House appropriations subcommittee has marked up NASA's budget, and recommended restoring $200M more than the President recommended, or $100M more than the Senate subcommittee, to NASA's planetary science program.  (This would still be a $100M cut from this year's funding.)  The House language specifically directs $150M of that towards a mission that leads to a Mars sample return or, if that's not possible, then the money would go towards an Europa orbiter.


Here is the post from this morning with the other good news, for your convenience:




Click on the image to read a current summary of the proposed JUICE mission


Jonathan Amos at the BBC website reports that the JUICE Jupiter system mission is now the front runner for the European Space Agency's selection of its next large science mission.  If the recommendation by the Space Science Advisory Committee is ratified in a few weeks by the Space Programme Committee, JUICE would launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030.  The spacecraft then would study the giant planet and its magnetosphere as well as conduct flybys of the moons Europa and Callisto before entering orbit around Ganymede for extensive studies of that moon.  Click on the image above (or here) to read the most recent summary of the mission from the proposal team, or you can read a summary of the mission goals in an earlier post of mine, JUICE – Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter Revised Proposal.  There is the possibility that NASA may play a minor role in the mission such as contributing an instrument or two.


On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Senate's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee voted to restore $100M of the proposed cuts to NASA's Mars program.  This would still leave NASA's planetary science program with a cut compared to last year of approximately $200M.  It's unclear how NASA would use the additional funding if it is matched in the House budget and eventually signed into law by the President.  The additional funds would be too late and too small to allow NASA to rejoin the European and Russian 2016 mission and probably the 2018 mission.  Possibilities I can think of is that NASA might contribute entry, landing, and descent technology for the 2018 rover in exchange to being allowed to contribute instruments, or the funding to enhance the scope of NASA's own planned 2018 Mars mission, or the funding might be used to enable more frequent flights of Discovery or New Frontiers missions.  


The Senate action also proposes significant program changes for the U.S. weather satellite program and for the commercial crew program.  Space Policy Online has a good summary.  


I'll close by posting two slides from the recent JUICE mission summary that describe the contributions the mission would make to studying Ganymede and Europa.  I recommend you read the full presentation


 I am excited by this news!  JUICE would be a fantastic mission.




Good News Times Two


Click on the image to read a current summary of the proposed JUICE mission

Jonathan Amos at the BBC website reports that the JUICE Jupiter system mission is now the front runner for the European Space Agency's selection of its next large science mission.  If the recommendation by the Space Science Advisory Committee is ratified in a few weeks by the Space Programme Committee, JUICE would launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030.  The spacecraft then would study the giant planet and its magnetosphere as well as conduct flybys of the moons Europa and Callisto before entering orbit around Ganymede for extensive studies of that moon.  Click on the image above (or here) to read the most recent summary of the mission from the proposal team, or you can read a summary of the mission goals in an earlier post of mine, JUICE – Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter Revised Proposal.  There is the possibility that NASA may play a minor role in the mission such as contributing an instrument or two.


On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Senate's Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee voted to restore $100M of the proposed cuts to NASA's Mars program.  This would still leave NASA's planetary science program with a cut compared to last year of approximately $200M.  It's unclear how NASA would use the additional funding if it is matched in the House budget and eventually signed into law by the President.  The additional funds would be too late and too small to allow NASA to rejoin the European and Russian 2016 mission and probably the 2018 mission.  Possibilities I can think of is that NASA might contribute entry, landing, and descent technology for the 2018 rover in exchange to being allowed to contribute instruments, or the funding to enhance the scope of NASA's own planned 2018 Mars mission, or the funding might be used to enable more frequent flights of Discovery or New Frontiers missions.  


The Senate action also proposes significant program changes for the U.S. weather satellite program and for the commercial crew program.  Space Policy Online has a good summary.  


I'll close by posting two slides from the recent JUICE mission summary that describe the contributions the mission would make to studying Ganymede and Europa.  I recommend you read the full presentation


 I am excited by this news!  JUICE would be a fantastic mission.




Sunday, April 15, 2012

Developing the New Mars Plan



Website for conference for which NASA is soliciting ideas for its new Mars roadmap


You may have read by now that this past Friday, NASA held a press conference to discuss its planning process to develop a new strategy to explore Mars.  This follows the budget cuts to NASA’s Mars exploration plans requested in the President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget.  NASA has announced in response to those cuts that it would plan for a modest $700M Mars mission in 2018 and future missions that would both further both Mars science and develop technologies for eventual manned missions to Mars.  No details other than the budget have been released for the 2018 mission.  You can read NASA’s press release on the conference here.

This was an unusual press conference that presented the plan for the plan but carefully did not discuss any of the ideas under consideration for specific missions, especially the planned 2018 mission.  What NASA managers did was to reiterate NASA’s plans to develop a new plan and to announce a workshop to be held this June to solicit ideas that “will provide an open forum for presentation, discussion and consideration of concepts, options, capabilities and innovations to advance Mars exploration. These ideas will inform a strategy for exploration within available resources, beginning as early as 2018 and stretching into the next decade and beyond.” 

You can look at the list of topics planned for the workshop at this website, which include:

Instrumentation and Investigation Approaches (for example, “Interrogating the shallow subsurface of Mars, both from orbit (remote sensing, active, or passive) and from the surface (e.g., sounding, drilling, excavating, penetrators, or other approaches)”

Safe and Accurate Landing Capabilities, Mars Ascent, and Innovative Exploration Approaches (for example, “Concepts to navigate and control entry and landing systems to improve landing accuracy from the current state of the art (~10-km semi-major axis or “miss distance”) to ≤1 km or lower (<100 m).)”

Mars Surface System Capabilities (for example, “Low-cost or improved performance in Mars surface mobility, e.g., long-range/fast-rate mobility for lighter rover systems to increase range/radius of mobility for smaller systems)”

The focus of the workshop is on ideas for developing a technology roadmap, not for laying out specific options for the 2018 mission or for identifying scientific priorities, which will be taken from the recently completed Decadal Survey.

The ideas presented at the workshop will be used by a NASA taskforce, the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) headed by Orlando Figueroa, which will recommend a new Mars strategy and the goals of the 2018 mission in a report to be delivered this August.

Editorial Thoughts: The list of topics for the workshop seems to emphasize the importance of the new Mars program in developing technologies to further robotic exploration of Mars and to eventually enable manned exploration.  The science goals for the missions will be taken from last year’s Decadal Survey report, which emphasized that other than missions leading to an eventual Mars sample return, no Mars science was a higher priority than science for other bodies in the solar system.  (The report’s authors did make an exception by explicitly including Mars within the list of candidate targets for the low cost Discovery program.) 

It will be interesting to see how NASA will reconcile a Mars program that does not include sample return with the goals of the Decadal Survey.  Two other analyses of this press conference suggest that the task may be difficult.  Lou Friedman wrote at the Planetary Society website that, “One of the big concerns now in the science community is how the new program plans will meet Planetary Decadal recommendations.”  Marcia Smith at Space Policy Online.com wrote, “Convincing the planetary science community and its supporters that another Mars mission is more important than other planetary exploration missions waiting their turn may be a challenging task, and whether it advances President Obama's goals for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit -- which starts with a human mission to an asteroid, not to Mars -- is an open question.”

I believe that NASA’s managers are doing their best to respond to a bad situation not of their making (the proposed budget cuts) by creatively merging the goals and available funding of the human spaceflight programs.  The comments quoted above indicate some of the challenges they face.  The scientific community will present its collective response to the eventual plan through its scientific societies and NASA’s advisory and analysis groups.  The ultimate practical measure of how well NASA succeeds may be whether Congress, ends up supporting this new direction in the ultimate budget approved for FY13 and whether the President proposes the necessary funding to move forward in his FY14 budget.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Save Planetary Exploration and Updates


Updates follow the request that American citizens lobby Congress to restore NASA’s Planetary Science Budget.

Help Save Planetary Science

If you are an American citizen, you can help save NASA’s planetary science program by writing your Congressman and Senators along with the chairs the key committees.  (For background, see this post and this post.)

Both the American Geophysical Union and the PlanetarySociety have background and the latter has a tool to send your email.  (Email is now the best way to communicate; physical letters must be irradiated before delivery after the anthrax attacks several years ago.)  In addition to your own representatives, copy the key chairs: Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee (enter the zip code 75087 at this website for the email to go to him, but make it clear that the email is a copy http://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml) and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) chairwoman of of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science (http://www.mikulski.senate.gov/contact/shareyouropinion.cfm).

An article in the Los Angeles Times helps to make clear what is at stake: “Scientists are concerned about a significant "brain drain" at JPL in coming years if the La CaƱada Flintridge lab's planetary missions are curtailed, particularly among its sterling roster of Mars specialists.  'The skill base to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend to the surface and land softly is a pretty unique skill,' said Richard O'Toole, executive manager of JPL's Office of Legislative Affairs.”  

If the key scientists and engineers needed to plan, design, build, test, and operate planetary missions leave JPL, John Hopkin’s Applied Physics Laboratory, and other key centers, it will take years to rebuild the expertise when the budget picture eventually improves.  

Can writing actually help?  I remember the last time that the planetary science program was facing major cuts.  I wrote my letters (physical letters, then).  Later I remember reading a Congressional staffer saying they had been overwhelmed by the number of letters they received supporting the program.  The actual number escapes me, but I remember being shocked at how few it was, dozens I think.  The cuts planned, including cancelling the Galileo mission to the Jupiter system were partially reversed. Imagine what hundreds of emails could do today.

Updates

This week, the European Space Agency’s  Space Science Advisory Committee (SSAC) will decide which of the three proposed large science missions to recommend to ESA’s management for approval.  In contention against two solid competitors is the JUICE mission to Jupiter and the Galilean moons.  While the official decision will not be made until late this Spring, the BBC’s Jonathan Amos writes that word likely will leak out on the recommendation soon.  

I previously wrote about the Senior Review that is considering which NASA spacecraft in extended missions should continue to receive funding and at what levels.  While the results for planetary missions like Cassini won’t be known for several months, the results for astrophysics missions are known.  All missions, including the Kepler exoplanet hunting mission, have been recommended for continued funding.  In the latter case, funding is recommended through 2016.  This will significantly enhance the mission’s ability to find Earth-like worlds potentially capable of hosting life.  You can read more about the recommendations at Universe Today.