Wednesday, December 31, 2008

NASA Planetary Program Update

At science conferences with a major focus on space or planetary science, NASA usually holds a NASA night where it provides the wider science community with updates on the program. This past AGU conference (in mid-December) was no exception. I was not able to attend that night. However, the planetary program presentation has now been posted.

Highlights [with my comments in brackets]:

MSL will stay within its FY09 budget: Overrun will occur in FY10-11 and is expected to be several hundred million dollars [the overrun may be roughly equal to the cost of a Mars Scout mission or a Discovery mission. However, simply canceling the next Scout or Discovery mission wouldn't free up funds in the right years (as I understand the budget) since the peak funding would not occur at the right time]

Several options to handle the MSL cost overrun within the Planetary Science Division have been created: (1) Use the “Guiding Principles” determined by the Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS); (2) Mars programs effected the most; then the rest of planetary; delaying missions preferable to cancellation [The guiding principles from the last PSS meeting were, "Consistent with concurrent SMD policy, cost increases incurred by the MSL project should, to the extent possible, be borne by JPL, the implementing organization for the mission. Additional funds should be sought next from within the Mars Exploration Program. Impacts to non-Mars programs, as needed after those two sources of funds are utilized, should be sought through delays rather than cancellation of approved missions now under development.]

Only one resulting action so far: The release of NF-3 AO (was to be Feb) is on hold until approved go forward plan is in place [The only silver lining here is that the selection of 2-3 candidate New Frontiers missions (the selection process first picks 2-3 missions for further study from which the final selection will be made) likely will come after the target for the next Flagship mission (Jupiter-Europa or Saturn-Titan) occurs. If Saturn-Titan is selected for the Flagship mission, a proposal to study the moons of Jupiter with a New Frontiers mission might be proposed.]

Flagship mission target selection process and schedule appears to be unchanged: NASA aligned its schedule with ESA: 2018-2022 launch date; Technical implementation/readiness will be critical to decision [Given that the science for both targets is absolutely compelling, I think that technical implementation/readiness will be the deciding factors. Unfortunately for us in the public trying to handicap the selection, we have no insight into these areas.]

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