Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mars InSight Proposal – Implementation and Science

Artist's conception of the InSight lander with the seismometer and heat flow instruments deployed.  Credit JPL.

A couple of weeks ago, before the budget proposal distracted me, I published the first of what will be two posts on the proposed Mars InSight Discovery mission.  Together with the Titan TiME lake lander and the CHopper comet mission, the InSight team is competing for selection this coming June as NASA's twelfth Discovery mission.  

This is the second post on the InSight mission; check out the first post for background on the science and previous Mars geophysical mission proposals.

While spacecraft have extensively studied the surfaces, atmospheres, and fields and particles environments for many of the solar system's worlds, the interiors of these worlds are largely terra incognita.  Except for a geophysical network left by the Apollo astronauts on the moon and a failed experiment carried by the Viking Mars landers, the interiors of the planets have been largely ignored.  Geophysicists have had to make do with low resolution gravity maps and modeling to make inferences about planetary interiors.

As I discussed in the previous post on the InSight mission, two major factors make Mars a priority for geophysicists.  The first is simply that in many key respects, the composition and shape of the surface and the composition of the atmosphere are the results of processes that occurred within the interior of Mars.  (The same is true for the Earth.)  Second, Mars' smaller size means that it would have cooled more quickly than the Earth, possibly preserving conditions common to the interiors of terrestrial plants that have been erased in the hot, active Earth's interior.  Exploring the interior of Mars, then helps to fill large gaps in our understanding of the early steps in the formation of the terrestrial planets including the Earth.

Missions to place networks of geophysical stations on Mars to address these questions have been proposed many times -- almost as often as proposals to return samples to Earth, and with the same success.  Ironically, geophysical network missions have been highly ranked by scientific review panels.  However, three factors have left these proposals as the perpetual bridesmaid and never the bride.  First, studying the deep interior of Mars depends primarily on observing strong seismic events but we don't know if they exist on present day Mars.  Second, a geophysical mission should be done with three or more stations to triangulate location of events, which puts this mission into the small Flagship class.  And finally, the priority for Mars has been to explore the surface and atmosphere in terms of past and present habitability, which has left no funds available to mount a geophysical mission.

The InSight mission proposes to be a pathfinder mission.  With a single lander, the mission can establish the level of seismic activity and reduce the uncertainty in many of our models Mars' interior.  In many respects this is similar to the strategy followed to explore the surfaces of the planets.  First send flyby spacecraft (the pathfinders) followed by orbiters (and often series of increasingly capable orbiters).  Similarly, early landers often are relatively simple to answer basic questions with later, more sophisticated landers and rovers addressing progressively more difficult questions.

In my previous post giving background for the InSight mission, I compared the InSight mission with previously proposed geophysical missions.  That chart (and there were two ommissions for the InSight list -- see below) showed that while previous proposals listed rich instrument compliments, the InSight spacecraft would carry the bare bones compliment: a highly sophisticated seismometer, a heat flow instrument, and a precision radio tracking capability. 

My previous chart missed two facility instruments that weren't listed on the websites.  InSight will have a panchromatic (black and white) camera on the arm that deploys the seismometer and the heat flow probe.  The camera's primary purpose is to find locations on the surface for these instruments and then verify their deployment.  However, the arm will be moved to create a panorama of the landing site and could be used to watch for surface changes during the mission.  The second facility instrument would measure basic weather conditions -- temperature, pressure, wind speed -- so that the noise from the local atmospheric conditions can be removed from the seismometer's readings.  The weather readings also will be useful meteorological data in themselves. 

(My thanks to the proposal team's PI, Dr. Bruce Banerdt at JPL, for the clarification and additional information used in this post.  To all my readers, I do my best, but this is a hobby of mine and not my area of research.  I will make mistakes and oversights.  Corrections published cheerfully.)

Because the InSight station would be solar powered, it is restricted to landing sites within 15 degrees of the equator to maximize average sunlight.  The lander requires an elevation below 0 kilometers elevation to make maximum use of parachute deceleration.  In past proposals, landing sites in the region of the Tharsis volcanoes have been suggested as areas where crustal stress may maximize seismic activity.  I don't know if any safe landing eclipses exist that meet all these criteria, and the team has chosen not to reveal its choice.  (These mission selections are competitive, and if you've identified a sweet landing location, no need to tip off other proposal teams.)

With past Mars landers, we've been spoiled by high activity.  There's the excitement of the initial first views and then roving across the surface to bring something new to our attention every few days or the rushed acquisition of samples.  The InSight mission would fundamentally different.  Once the instruments are deployed and the panorama acquired, this will become a mission of patience.  There are likely to be few large tectonic seismic events, and so much of the data will come from tiny tremblers caused by the tens of meteorite impacts that occur annually, tides from the tiny moon Phobos, and winds interacting with the surface.  The heat flow measurements will build up over time to determine how much heat is being released from the interior today.  The radio tracking study will look for tiny wobbles in Mars rotation that would indicate whether the deep interior is liquid or solid (if liquid, there will be "sloshing" detectable in the radio tracking).  Nominal mission life would be two years.  If dust levels on the solar panels permit, an extended mission would increase the likelihood of hearing multiple larger seismic events.

It's well known that geophysical measurements are best done using multiple stations and previous proposals have focused on at least two and usually four stations.  What can be done with a single station?  InSight likely would detect sufficient seismic activity to probe the structure of the crust and upper mantle, provide a better understanding of the structure of the deep core, and locate the source region of any large seismic events to within several hundred kilometers.  Our models of the interior of Mars will sharpen but remain fuzzy. 

Perhaps just as important, the InSight station would finally resolve the questions of how to do geophysical measurements on Mars.  At the moment, we don't know where the active regions are, we don't know what the level of activity is, and we don't know what valid seismic signals and the confounding noises look like.  The InSight mission enables highly tuned follow up missions to study the interior of Mars in detail.

Editorial Thoughts: I believe that the InSight mission can compete on its only on its own scientific merits.  However, the experience it would provide on how to do geophysical measurements on Mars would be just as valuable.  NASA flew two rover designs to Mars to gain the experience needed to develop the Mars Science Laboratory rover on its way to Mars now.  The InSight mission would be a pathfinder to richer geophyscial missions in the future.  In an era where large flagship missions have been ruled out, geophysical missions can provide new knowledge at moderate prices.

For more information:

InSight SEIS seismometer in English (by a team contributing to the instrument and oriented to a previous proposal to fly it on the ExoMars mission) and in French (home page)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Ruckus

NASA officials made the first presentation of the impact of the FY13 budget proposal before the Planetary Science Subcommittee, which is charged with providing outside advice from the scientific community to NASA's planetary program.

The posted presentations and the press accounts suggest a contentious discussion.

Dr. James Green, head of the Planetary Sciences Division presented the administration's proposal.  The major "news" is already well known: The budget requires cancellation of NASA's participation in a joint Mars program with Europe and cannot support a Flagship mission to the outer planets.  In place of these is a new, smaller Mars program to be funded by NASA's Human Exploration program, technology development program, and the science program.

His presentation included a few new details not found in the budget documents:

  • The competition for the next New Frontiers (NF4) mission will begin in FY16 with an expected launch around 2023
  • The competition for a new Discovery mission (Discovery 12 after the selection of Discovery 12 this summer) will begin in FY15 with a launch around 2020
Dr. Green did not present any details on the first mission in the new Mars program expected to launch in 2018.  These may come in the Mars Exploration Analysis Group (MEPAG) meeting next week. 

Separately, SpaceNews reports that the cuts proposed for next year's budget in the outer planets program largely will be used to begin planning the new Mars program and developing technology.  (By my reckoning, the remaining funding covers operation of the Cassini mission and limited planning for future Flagship missions that would not begin in this decade.)

Editorial Thoughts:  As a civil servant, Dr. Green's job is to support the President's proposal and then implement the program passed into law through Congress' funding bills.  Having had to deliver unpleasant plans of record myself, I don't envy him his task.

It's clear from the presentations from the different Analysis Groups (there's one for each solar system destination) and press accounts that the scientific community does not agree with this new budget.  They point out that it does not support the recommendations from last year's Decadal Survey report.  While the report called for missions to Europa if the joint Mars program could not be funded, the President has proposed a smaller and still undefined Mars program instead.  While the report called for selecting five new Discovery missions in the coming decade, at the pace supported by the budget it will be only two after the selection this summer.  While the report called for selecting two new New Frontiers missions after the selection of the OSIRIS-REx mission last year, it appears that only one may be selected.

When I started this blog, I decided to make it a source of information rather than of advocacy since there were several groups for the latter, both of professional scientists and citizens.  Suffice it to say, I don't agree with this budget proposal.  From the press articles, neither does the scientific community nor, most importantly, several Congressmen who will have considerable influence over the final budget.

I will go out on a limb and make a couple of predictions.  First, I think Congress will restore some, but not all of the proposed cuts to the planetary budget.  The additions will be too small and too late to restart the joint program with Europe or to begin an outer planets mission.  Rather, they may be used to make the new Mars program more robust.  (The current projected budgets past FY13 back load the program, potentially making it hard to fund a robust 2018 mission.)  Alternately, they may support a higher flight rate for New Frontiers and Discovery missions.

Second, I suspect that the joint Mars program with significant funding from the Human Exploration program may be short lived.  A proposal of this type seems to come up every few years, and then fizzle out.   We did get the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the LADEE mission from what was to be the first of many robotic missions to prepare for manned missions to the moon.  However, last year's proposed joint program died quickly when it was still only on paper.   A manned mission to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars is far off and in the meantime the Human Exploration program is under funded for its current projects.  

My take on the proposed new planetary program -- a new Mars program and reduced Discovery and New Frontiers programs -- is that it is the first cut at a plan in a much smaller planetary program than we had expected two years ago and even last year.  There hasn't been time to work with Congress and the scientific community to develop and build consensus around a new plan.  The budgetary assumptions underlying the proposals in the Decadal Survey have gone away.  Much of the analysis from the Survey can be used to develop the new program.  

Some interesting questions that might addressed in developing the new program might include:
  • Should Mars be the focus of a dedicated portion of the budget?  Should another target be the focus instead?  Or should there be no focused target?
  • If there is a dedicated program to Mars, how large should it be in relationship to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs?  Fly more missions to Mars or fewer to Mars and more to other targets through a  higher mission rate for the New Frontiers and Discovery programs?
  • If there is a dedicated program for Mars, what should be its compelling vision to replace the previous follow the water and the current follow potential habitable sites?
  • Should the list of target missions for New Frontiers be revisited?  No missions are on the list for any of the icy moons because the Decadal Survey assumed a Flagship mission would be flown to either Europa or Uranus and its moons.  Now that those missions are out, should an icy moons mission be put on the list?  
  • If the budget will support only a New Frontiers mission and a half or so each decade, should the flight rate be reduced to one, larger mission per decade?  A single flight per decade could probably fly one of the new smaller Flagship missions under study to Europa or a similar class mission to Titan and Enceladus.
As a former strategic planner, I'm fascinated to see how these and many other questions will be answered.  In the meantime, I'm hoping for better news from the actions of Congress on this proposed budget.

PSS presentations:

Good articles with more background:

SpaceNews: NASA Raids Outer Planets Budget To Fund Fast Start on Mars Reboot
SpaceFlightNow: Mars, Europa missions battle for scarce NASA funding
SpacePolicyOnline: Mars Shaping Up as NASA Budget Battleground
SpacePolitics: The Mars skirmishes continue

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Budget + 1 Day

The proposed FY13 NASA budget has been out for a day, and I'll follow up on the basic analysis with some additional thoughts that a bit of reflection brings.

Last year's budget delivered the first budget of the new administration.  It projected a drop in future planetary funding to enable additional funding for Earth science missions.  At the time, I projected that this budget would mean that NASA could not afford Flagship missions to both Mars and the outer planets.  Subsequent analyses provided by NASA bore out that assessment.  

This year's budget proposal recommends further budget cuts.  In the near term, those cuts are borne by the Mars program while the New Frontiers and Discovery programs fund a mission development each.  At the end of the five year window, the Mars funding is restored but the New Frontiers and Discovery programs are cut.  With the budgets forecast by this proposal, it appears that NASA cannot afford both the Mars program at its current or restored levels and active development of both New Frontiers and Discovery missions.

I rarely editorialize in this blog, but I will here.  I believe that robust funding of the New Frontiers and Discovery programs are essential to a balanced program that includes the entire solar system.  If necessary, funding for these programs should be maintained by reducing the increase for the Mars program, which should still enable two or more substantial ("medium class") missions to Mars per decade.  (An increase to the planetary science budget would also do the trick -- hint to Congress.)

In an era of constrained budgets, Mars makes sense as a focus.  It is easy to reach, relatively easy to land on, has a fairly benign environment (at least compared to, say, the surface of Venus or the radiation fields at Europa), and NASA has substantial investments in technology to enable missions.

I am disappointed that there appears to be no way to begin development of a substantial NASA mission to any of the icy moons in the outer solar system in the next decade.  That leaves me hoping for the selection of the TiME Titan lake Discovery mission and the European Ganymede orbiter with Europa and Callisto flyby mission.  (I'm very impressed by the other two Discovery proposals in competition, but TiME must be selected for the next Discovery mission to arrive while the northern lakes are in a position for it communicate with Earth after landing.)

Ryan Anderson at the Martian Chronicles blog pointed out some smaller but key cuts that I had overlooked.  This year, NASA is spending $70M to continue operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Opportunity rover, and the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter in addition to supporting American involvement for the European Mars Express orbiter.  Next year's proposal will cut that amount to $54 million (-24%).  The outer planet budget, which funds the Cassini orbiter along with future mission planning, will drop by 31%.  These cuts suggest substantial reductions in support for these continuing missions as hinted at by the angst over the upcoming review of these missions (also see here for Cassini).  (Funding levels for operating Discovery missions also drop, but it is hard to tell whether this is because of increased efficiencies in operations that occur as a mission gains experience, different mission phases, or because of planned cuts in science returned.  Also, what is that sudden jump in Dawn mission funding in 2017 after it has completed its mission at Ceres?  Is this a hint of an extended mission?)

If the budget levels in this proposal are implemented, NASA will still have the most capable program of planetary exploration in the solar system.  But between this and last year's proposals, that program and the portion of the solar system it can reach will be much smaller than we expected two years ago.

Here is a list of other good articles to read about the new budget proposal:

NASA Budget Pushes Science to the Brink (Planetary Society)

Proposed NASA Budget Cuts Mars Exploration by $226 Million (Martian Chronicles blog)

Monday, February 13, 2012

NASA's Planetary Science FY13 Budget Proposal

Graphs derived from budget data from NASA FY13 budget proposal documents.
Numbers in $Ms.  Click on images for larger versions.

The big news of the President's FY13 budget proposal had already leaked: The budget proposes to end NASA's participation in the joint ExoMars program with ESA.  The money saved is put towards the completion of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The proposal would fund currently approved new mission development: Mars MAVEN, OSIRIS-REx New Frontiers mission, and a Discovery mission to be selected this June.  Funding continues to support missions in flight.

The proposal calls for a new series of Mars missions, possibly conducted with international partners, with serious development to begin later in the forecast period (which projects budgets out to FY17).  The missions would not be Flagship class, but would rather be "medium class".  Serious definition of the new Mars mission sequence would occur over the next few months.  Goals for the missions would be a synergy between those to enable future human missions, science, and technology development.  The first mission might fly as early as 2018.

The budget forecast shows a steep decline in funding for New Frontiers and Discovery missions towards the end of the forecast period, apparently to support increased Mars funding.  The budget documents state that selection for a new New Frontiers mission (which would be the fourth in the series) would begin in 2015.  No date is given for the selection for the next Discovery mission to follow the one to be selected this June.  As previous planned, funding the Lunar program  will end with its goals to be included within the Discovery program.  (Note: The decline in New Frontiers and Discovery missions may represent supporting a peak Mars program funding and may or may not continue beyond the 2017 period projected in this budget.)

Observations and Thoughts

If you look at NASA's overall science program, my top level takeaway is that overall funding is approximately flat, with gradual growth in the Earth Science program.  Funds would be switched between the planetary and astrophysics programs to make funding between them more nearly equal.  The planetary and astrophysics programs are both exciting, and what the relative funding should be between them is a judgement call.  Since this is a blog on planetary exploration, you know my preference, but increasing funding for astrophysics can certainly be justified.  Given the US economy and budget pressures, an approximately flat overall budget probably is good news.

I have been expecting the cancellation of NASA's participation in the joint Mars program since NASA announced that it would transfer funding from other science programs to complete the JWST.  The Decadal Survey's justification in the joint program was based on the 2016 orbiter and the 2018 rover being the first steps in a Mars sample return program.  Press reports have stated that the Office of Management and Budget's appetite for a second $6-8B Flagship program -- JWST being the first and a Mars sample return program the second -- was minimal at best.

Various press accounts have mentioned that the immediate cut to the Mars program will be fought by various members of Congress and the planetary science community.  However, the earliest that a revised NASA budget could be approved that would add money back into the Mars program would be late summer at best and possibly sometime late this year or early next.  (Our budgets in non-election years usually are months late; this election year, who knows?)  That likely would be too late for ESA to count on, if it happens.  ESA and Russia will continue their talks on revising the program.  I believe it is an open question as to whether the funds they will have available will enable a program that resembles the currently proposed missions.  I hope so -- they would do excellent science.

To fund the new Mars program, funds apparently would be shifted from the New Frontiers and Discovery missions following the completion of their next missions (OSIRIS-REx for New Frontiers and a mission to be selected in June for Discovery).  If the funding proposed in FY17 were to continue beyond 2017 for these two programs, my back of the envelope calculations suggest that each program would fly about a mission every 6-9 years.  If this were to occur, this would be significantly fewer than the 3 New Frontiers and 4-5 Discovery missions that the Decadal Survey recommended as the core of the planetary program be selected in the coming decade.  While budget projections five years out are just best guesses (that's five annual budgets, two new Congresses, and one to two new Presidents out), these are the numbers that the managers of the Planetary Science program have to plan to.  We will have to see if and how this budget projection impacts the flight rates for these two programs.

The new Mars program appears to replace the priorities laid out by the Decadal Survey should the 2018 Mars caching rover not be affordable.  In that case, the Decadal Survey's next highest priority was a Europa mission followed by a Uranus mission.  This budget appears to replace that priority with a new, to-be-defined Mars program.  Comments by Dr. James Green, the head of NASA's Planetary Science program, made it clear that future budgets would not support starting new Flagship missions to any destination in the solar system within this five year budget window.  In the meantime, the proposed budget supports continued definition of mission concepts and technology development for when budgets do support new Flagship missions.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

More Leaks on NASA's Budget Proposal

More leaks continue on the President's budget proposal for FY13 to be released Monday.  The Washington Post reports that the proposed planetary science budget will drop from ~$1.5B this year to $1.2B next year.  (Last year's budget proposal had targeted spending for FY13 at $1.36B, so if the Post is correct, this represents a continued reduction in what was already projected to be a declining budget.)  The article suggests that most of the cut would come from the Mars program, which could reduce it from ~$600M this year (projected at FY13 $441M in last years budget proposal) to something less than $300M.  Based on my analysis last year, that figure would support completion of the 2013 Maven orbiter and operations of the Curiosity Mars rover.  It would not support NASA's participation in the ExoMars program at levels previously discussed.

Both the Washington Post article and an analysis at the Space Politics blog report that at least some members of Congress are not happy with the proposed cuts.  This creates the possibility that some or all of any cuts that are proposed may be reversed.  However, the money would have to come from another program within the group of agencies funded with NASA, which includes many of the science agencies and the Veterans Administration.  Those programs also have their supporters.

Monday, February 6, 2012

U.S. Reportedly to Drop Out of ExoMars

The formal announcement on NASA's participation or non-participation in the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions will come with the release of the President's FY13 budget proposal on February 13.  However, BBC News reports that NASA officials have informally told their ESA counterparts that NASA will not be able to participate in either the 2016 orbiter or the 2018 rover mission.  The BBC article says that ESA hopes to substitute Russian participation for NASA's to enable the mission.  However, without NASA's participation, ESA will have to develop its own descent and landing system which would likely raise the cost to ESA above the current 1 billion euro budget.  (ESA's member states have so far committed only 850 million euro).

A separate post on the NASA Watch site says that early leaks on the FY13 budget report that NASA's budget for Mars exploration will be cut in half, although it doesn't state whether that would be immediate or phased in.

I will provide an analysis of the FY13 budget proposal when it is released next week.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Philae: Mission to Land on a Comet

NASA has published a video describing the mission of the Philae comet lander being carried by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft.  The press release seems to have all the text of the video, but the video does give some idea of the views that may be available from the lander.  If you want to skip the introductory material on comets, fast forward to about the 2 minute mark of the video.  You can read the press release and follow the video link at

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Japanese and Russian Plans

A number of articles in the last two days have reported on Japanese and Russian planetary exploration plans.  I'll recommend two because they provide some extra depth.

The Japanese government has approved the Hayabusa 2 mission to sample a new asteroid, the 914 meters in diameter 1999 JU3 asteroid.  As reported by the University of Central Florida, this asteroid has been a focus of study by faculty member Humberto Campins, who states that, “Based on our analysis, it should be rich in primitive materials, specifically organic molecules and hydrated minerals from the early days of our solar system,” Campins said. “If successful it could give us clues about the birth of water and life in our world.”  Many of you will remember that the original Hayabusa mission suffered from several technical problems.  The new spacecraft will have a number of updated systems, including an improved sampling device that should collect a larger sample.

The Russian government has announced that it's next Mars system mission will either by a joint mission with ESA and NASA for the ExoMars program or a new mission to attempt to sample the Martian moon Phobos.  The Daily Galaxy reported this news, and also described the evidence that supports the view that Phobos is likely to be composed of material blasted off the surface of Mars by meteor impacts that agglomerated into the moon.  A sample return to Phobos, then would be an inexpensive way to return additional samples of Mars.  (Editorial note: The main problem with sampling Mars via Phobos will be the same as with sampling Mars through the meteorites from that planet found on the Earth: We don't know the source and original context of the samples and the sedimentary rocks most desired are the one least likely to be successfully  sent into space.)