Monday, May 3, 2010

Decadal Survey Update: Sticker Shock Ahead

Steven Squyres has been presenting updates at various planetary science conferences on the status of the Decadal Survey.  The slide above is from his most recent presentation at an astrobiology conference.  (You can down load the entire presentation by going to the Decadal Survey webpage and scrolling down to 'Past outreach events, and clicking on the 'Astrobiology Science Conference' presentation.  Sorry, no url to the presentation itself.)

Other than these updates, formal news from the Survey has been scarce.  Each of the working panels have been meeting over the past month in closed session to work on their reports.  Several news articles, including one in the subscription only version of Aviation Week and Space Technology, have been touting the search for present and past life as an overarching theme likely to emerge from the Survey.  (See a summary of the Aviation Week article here or the Space Daily article.)

Each of the science panels (inner planets, Mars, giant planets, etc.) has been including science goals that link to astrobiology (See slides at end of this blog entry from Squyres' presentation).  For Mars and the outer planet satellites, this is easy since they include habitats that could be past or present abodes of life.  For the inner planets and primitive bodies, the goal is to tie into the evolution of habitable worlds.  Only the giant planets has not been able to find a tie to astrobiology.

The Aviation Week article lists several missions that best tie to an astrobiology theme; I've included possible costs that I've read in the past, but not Squyers' warning about sticker shock.  (Note, for the purposes of the Survey, the decade runs from 2013 through 2022.)

  • Mars Trace Gas Orbiter - $500M?
  • Mars Sample Return (series of three missions) - $5-7B, with perhaps $4B needed in coming decade
  • Jupiter Europa Orbiter - $3B
  • Titan/Enceladus missions - wide range of costs depending on sophistication
  • Comet sample return - at least $1.2B if warm samples (i.e., the ices melt) are allowed

Add this up, and assume 2-4 Discovery missions for those destinations without an astrobiology tie, and this would pretty well fill the expected budget of $12-13B over the decadal period (FY11 dollars).

One of Squyres' slides showed a schedule for the Survey's meetings.  It showed that the results of the analyses of candidate missions will be available to the Survey in July of this year.  It's not clear when those results will be made public.

I've gone through the list of missions under consideration by the Survey and listed them based on tie to an astrobiology theme.  (Some of the missions listed as non-astrobiology could associated with some astrobiology theme.  Feel free to disagree with my assignments!)  Institutions listed after each candidate mission indicate which institution is preparing the analysis of that mission.  Costs will be independently assessed.

  • Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (JPL)
  • Mars Polar Mission (JPL)
  • Mars Sample Return (JPL): (Mars Astrobiology Explorer with Cacheing (MAX-C rover), Mars Sample Return Lander, Mars Sample Return Orbiter)
  • Europa Flagship Mission (JPL)
  • Titan Flagship Mission (JPL)
  • Titan Lake Lander (JPL)
  • Enceladus Mission (JPL)

Evolution of [potentially] habitable worlds
  • SAGE Venus orbiter (NASA NF-3 Candidate)
  • Venus Mobile Explorer (GSFC)
  • Venus Tessera Lander (GSFC)
  • Venus Climate Mission (GSFC)
  • Ganymede Mission (JPL)
  • OSIRIS REX asteroid sample return (NASA NF-3 Candidate)
  • Comet Surface Sample Return (APL)

Non-astrobiology Missions
  • Moonrise lunar sample return  (NASA NF-3 Candidate)
  • Lunar Polar Volatiles Lander (APL)
  • Lunar Network Mission (MSFC)
  • Mars Network Mission (JPL)
  • Io Mission (JPL)
  • Saturn Probe (JPL)
  • Uranus System Mission (APL)
  • Neptune System Mission (JPL)
  • Main Belt Asteroid Lander (APL)
  • Chiron Orbiter (GSFC)
  • Trojan Asteroid Tour (APL)

In another area of Squyres' presentation, reemphasized that only missions that already flying or have formal new starts are excluded from the Decadal Survey's review.  The missions in development that have formal new starts, plus the next New Frontiers selection (since the selection is in progress) are listed below:

Missions still to launch not included in Decadal Survey:
  • Juno (Jupiter) 2011
  • Mars Science Lab 2011
  • Maven (Mars aeronomy) 2013
  • Artemis (Lunar fields and particles) 2011
  • GRAIL (Lunar gravity) 2011
  • LADEE (Lunar atmosphere and dust) 2012
  • Next New Frontiers mission (OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return, SAGE Venus lander, or MoonRise lunar sample return)

The following slides are from Squyres' presentation and list the science goals of each sub-discipline (astrobiology goals are presumably highlighted since Squyres was presenting at an astrobiology conference).


  1. VK:

    When you say "...Costs will be independently assessed...", does that mean by multiple agencies? And if so, how is the final cost determined if they all disagree (use the average value, highest value, etc.)?


  2. NASA has hired a single outside firm that doesn't implement missions to do the costing. This way, the same methodology is applied to each mission and there's no temptation to be optimistic on the costs of a mission your organization would possibly develop.

  3. I think the first ramification of sticker shock will be a radical contraction in the range of missions that are even, for lack of a better way to say it, worth talking about. Of course, talking is free, but the feasibility of, say, a major Uranus system orbiter was elusive ten years ago; now many other missions will fall into that class: for example, a Saturn probe or a major Neptune system orbiter.

    The only targets that have a prayer of being the main focus of new missions in the coming decades are:

    Likely Targets
    The Moon (because the cost denominator is so low)
    asteroids / planets (ditto; relatively unexplored)

    Possible targets
    Venus (the cost denominator for certain missions is low)

    The major issues for these worlds are, as I see them:

    Mars: Sample Return is the holy grail here, but is so costly that we will have to recon the planet to death before committing to a site. MSR before the recon is absolutely as mature as possible might mean leaving the best site untouched for decades more. The political/PR/funding fallout from an un-compelling first MSR could be lethal to any followups.

    Titan: Too many fascinating niches for us to place a major lander at all of them. An orbiter for radar/IR and relay might allow for more than one small lander/floater? Otherwise, orbiter + balloon seems the likely mission.

    Europa: An orbiter would be the first of a two-mission recon, with a lander capable of examining some of the darkest / newest ice to follow, but with or without a relay capability, the lander might be a long time in coming in a tight budget environment. Alternately, an Ice Clipper sample return might provide a cheaper architecture that could also service Enceladus.

    The Moon, asteroids, and comets (as well as the martian moons) allow for landers that don't require a lot of booster power from Earth, although sample return can only be so cheap.

    Enceladus is a unique case and the profiles of possible missions is not yet mature. The geysers provide a tricky case: Exploring too far from them defeats the purpose, but they may be hostile to direct in situ exploration. Enceladus can get trivial follow-on from a mission headed to Titan, but improvements on Cassini's data will require dedication.

    Venus: The poster child for non-astrobiological exploration. In many ways, it is like Titan, but with a much easier cruise, a much tougher subcloud environment, and a lot less romance. In principle, many of Titan's issues exist: There are more surface environments than we are likely to visit with a serious lander, but an atmospheric probe that upgrades the previous versions is an easy win that is even within the means of several other nations.

  4. Someone put the MSR idea out of its misery please! This monster would eat the whole of the unmanned budget and has a very high chance of failing!


  5. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your POV), MSR has so much steam behind it by now that stopping it may be next to impossible.

    I for one would like to see more effort expended on Venus. We don't even know what we don't know there yet...

  6. I'd rank these missions by different criteria from what the Survey is using. I'd take into account the broader context, not just science in general or astrobiology. For example:

    - NASA intends to follow the "Flexible Path" for astronaut missions (i.e. Lagrange points, NEO's, lunar orbit, Mars orbit/Moons, and Moon/Mars surface later). Missions that could be done better using those type of astronaut missions would get lower rating - postponing them until the astronaut missions can contribute. Planetary science missions that could benefit from or help Flexible Path astronaut missions would get a higher ranking. For example, a MSR mission would get a low rating since a Flexible Path mission could help with it. A partial MSR mission that left samples in Mars or Moon orbit for an astronaut mission to pick up would get a higher ranking. Missions to potential astronaut destinations would tend to get a higher ranking. Missions that work with the proposed new line of robotic astronaut precursors would also tend to do well.

    - Expensive missions like MSR and JEO in the list above would get a low ranking. This sort of expense indicates to me that the technology isn't ready to do the mission in a cost-effective way. NASA plans a lot of general and exploration-oriented technology investments. Let's lower the cost of these missions through technology improvements before starting them. I'm a bit worried that something like MSR which we already estimate in the $5-7B range (and look what happened to the original MSL estimates) will turn into a miniature version of the slow-motion multi-year Ares rocket catastrophe we've been witnessing since 2005.

    Consider the potential for budget problems this decade. For example, JEO is expensive and could get half-built and then suffer from budget cuts. Why not do an Ice Clipper or 2 instead, add some serious capability to Europe's JGO? There should still be lots of savings left over to fund other missions then.

    - Even though it's a science survey, I'd factor in aspects like security and science benefits. For example, destinations with potential resources would tend to get a higher ranking. Missions that develop instruments or other spacecraft components that could be useful to commecial interests, NOAA, DoD, etc would tend to get a higher ranking. Missions that promote use of more U.S. launch vehicles per dollar would tend to do well for general economic, security, and industrial base reasons.

  7. Anonymous -

    Check out a blog from earlier this year that looked at a big versus small mission approach to the Decadal Survey:

    Your post is well argued and I really appreciate the discussion. One place I would disagree with a starting assumption is that I think that the JEO mission technology is well developed -- it's had a decade of technical maturity. Big orbiter missions are expensive: If the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was built today, it would likely be over $1B. The full up Mars Trace Gas Orbiter feels like it's headed for $1B, several of the next generation Earth observing satellites are at about the same price range, and the Saturn Titan Flagship orbiter came in over $2B. Add in the very expensive technologies for the radiation at Jupiter, and the cost gets bumped up to around $3B.

    That isn't to say that we shouldn't go with a cheaper alternative at Jupiter, just that it doesn't appear to be technical immaturity doesn't seem to be driving the cost.

    And I second your concerns about the costs of MSR.

  8. My example of JEO and technology might not be a good one. I probably should make it more general. NASA's new budget proposal has a general space technology development and demonstration budget that is many times greater that the one it had in recent years - about $5B over 5 years. This isn't specific to Planetary Science; that part of the budget is for "cross-cutting" technology that helps multiple areas (various parts of NASA, other agencies, industry). However, much of it will presumably be of use to Planetary Science. At the same time, there's a big new technology demonstration area for NASA's astronaut Exploration budget - $7.8B over 5 years. This is for propellant depots, automated rendezvous and docking, astronaut EVAs and satellite/observatory servicing, use of space resources, and various other technologies. There are also other changes - more use of the ISS, more emphasis on affordable rather than big rockets, more use of commercial suppliers (i.e. more fixed-price with the supplier owning the system and less cost-plus), and robotic astronaut precursors. Some of this could also have implications for Planetary Science missions. That budget may or may not actually be funded, but it's NASA's intended new direction. I'd consider temporarily lowering the priority of a mission that would benefit a lot from success in these technology or other efforts, especially if the planetary mission in question is an expensive one.

  9. I'm a recent reader here, so I didn't see your earlier post on a Decadal priority list with more smaller missions. That post was a few days before the new NASA budget came out, so you wouldn't have had a chance to take that into account when thinking about criteria for judging mission priorities. That budget isn't dramatically different for Planetary Science, but a lot of other areas have big changes that indirectly give Planetary Science some opportunities that I'd now factor into the priorities. I like your list of goals, but as I mentioned above I'd also consider the broader context beyond science (i.e. needs of other agencies like NOAA or DoD, industry, NASA's astronaut program and other science areas, etc). The weight such external needs should get compared to the main purpose of the missions (i.e. planetary science) could be debated, but I'd factor in those needs somehow.

    I agree that the Survey missions should be robust in the face of budget changes or mission cost overruns. Anything else might turn out to be wishful thinking.

    I tend to like a "food pyramid" mixture of missions with a small number of big missions at the top of the "pyramid" and more small missions at the foundation. I like the big missions, but if they are too big or there are too many of them, the foundation gets squashed.

    A pyramid seems to make sense at a number of levels: budget flexibility, diversity of missions, career path for new scientists and engineers, launch industrial base, etc. Thus I'd favor a list like the one you described. I might try for a wedge of very low cost missions that perhaps take on more risk and have very limited goals. Earth Science is starting a new "Venture-class" line of small missions. It's probably more difficult to do that for Planetary Science, but something in that direction might be of use.

    MSR in particular seems so big that it should be broken down into components that are useful in their own right that just happen to feed into the broader MSR. I'd probably focus on shorter-term return of samples from Phobos or Deimos, or the Martian upper atmosphere, for now. In the meantime, do a really thorough job with multiple surface rovers that make it easy for a later MSR mission to grab the best samples. My idea of "thorough" would probably take us beyond the Survey's decade for the later steps in the MSR. By that time we'd have a good idea whether we can expect a "Flexible Path" astronaut mission to Mars orbit that could (among other things) pick up samples delivered from the surface to Mars orbit, or we need to rely on a robotic mission for that role. If an astronaut mission is in the cards, the by-then advanced surface rovers could also feed into very interesting surface rovers controlled telerobotically by the astronauts in Mars orbit.

    I also like the scenario you mentioned where there is a line of similar spacecraft that could do multiple missions. That's always difficult to do technically and politically (one always wants to optimize a particular spacecraft for its mission, even if it costs more...), but it's a worthy goal.

    In your mission list, I wonder if we might be better off with more missions like a Jovian moon observer and a Saturnian moon observer than JEO/JGO, especially considering your Swags for those missions. Considering technology that is now available, the problems experienced with Galileo, the opportunity to try different sorts of instruments, and the opportunity to follow up on the earlier observations after many years to think about them, those might be quite good missions (and not just "Galileo/Cassini repeats") that let us do a really good job when we do get to the long-anticipated JEO/JGO sort of missions.

    Of course these are all just my opinions ...

  10. Anonymous -

    Your comments are excellent and I really appreciate them.

    The Mars community is convinced that it can pick a good sample site and it is better to go for good than delay yet another decade to try to find the best site. (Another decade's delay puts the sample return beyond the working careers of all but the youngest scientists and beyond the lifespans of many.) For the Mars program, that might be a good tradeoff, but funding MSR puts many other missions beyond the working careers of scientists interested in them.

    I do believe that we need to start a regular program of launches to Jupiter and Saturn. Those missions take so long to plan and to arrive, that missions started in the coming decade will deliver their data at the end of the next decade. Perhaps smaller and more frequent is a better choice that large and once per decade at most. However, small missions cannot nail some of the key questions. Tough trade offs all around.