Thursday, March 26, 2009

Relationship Problems

The subscription-only journal Science has a long article in this week's issue (March 27, 2009) discussing the problems facing NASA and ESA in planning a joint Mars exploration program. A joint program is the goal of the heads of the two space agencies' science divisions. They plan to have worked out a program by this summer for both a joint 2016 mission and a series of follow on missions culminating in a joint sample return mission.

The crux of the problem for both agencies is money. The current ExoMars rover and lander (both substantial science platforms) is $1.56B, and ESA's member nations have pledged only $1.1B. After the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) cost overruns, NASA will have only $700 for a 2016 mission, with $50-80M of that pledged for ExoMars instruments. NASA would like to do a Mars orbiter for 2016 that would act as a long-lived communication relay for landers and rovers, follow up on the discovery of methane in the atmosphere, and continue high resolution imaging of the surface. With the money available, however, the orbiter that could be flown would have a limited instrument suite. The article quotes the head of NASA's MEPAG Mars science community group as saying that what can be done as, "Not much."

The article goes on to list the problems facing the creation of a joint program:

o One ExoMars investigator is said to state that bringing in the U.S. or Russia into the mission will simply delay it. On the other hand, a former NASA official is quoted to point out that ESA's first attempt to land on Mars (Beagle 2 was not an official ESA project) will be ExoMars, and it is more complicated than NASA's MSL.

o The budgeting process of the two agencies will be hard to synch. NASA plans in terms of multi-mission roadmaps, while ESA plans in terms of single missions. NASA, however, is funded annually while ESA has greater funding stability.

o There is not agreement in the science community that there should be a sequence of missions between MSL (2011) and ExoMars (2016) and Mars Sample Return (MSR). One ExoMars scientist is quoted as saying that Mars exploration should go from ExoMars to MSR in 2018. Right now, NASA is thinking of a mid-capability rover in 2018 and possibly a joint network mission with ESA in 2020 before MSR.

The article lists the price tag for MSR as $6-8B. This is $2B higher than I've seen in the past.

Editorial thoughts: I think that the problems discussed at some length (it's a two page article) are real. It will be interesting to see if the two agencies can work them out. Mars has become expensive. All the missions I've read about for the next decade in NASA documents, not including MSR, are $1-1.5B each. If NASA funds the Jupiter Europa mission, flies MSL and the Mars MAVEN orbiter, and launches several New Frontiers and Discovery missions, there may be room in NASA's budget for only one or two of this class of mission in the coming decade. ESA faces a similar problem in looking for good missions to fly to Mars. Together, more can be done.

It seems to me that the key question around the entire Mars and planetary program is whether or not MSR is monetarily feasible. At the high end of the costs quoted in the Science article, MSR could be the entire planetary mission program for both agencies for almost a decade at current budget levels. I have not heard of the political support in the U.S. to substantially increase the planetary exploration program to fund both MSR and a set of other missions. I am hoping that the Decadal Survey will finally settle the monetary priorities. Is MSR so compelling that it is worth all the missions that could be flown in its stead? If so, we should put our resources behind finally flying it. If not, then we should take it off the roadmap so that the best Mars and planetary program can be planned.

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