Tuesday, June 8, 2010


The latest print issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology has a one sentence mention that budgetary concerns will push the earliest flight of the Mars sample return from 2020/22 to 2022/24.  Presumably, the MAX-C caching rover/ExoMars rover remains on track for 2018 and the elements that would be pushed back are the Mars orbiter-Earth return vehicle and the Mars lander-ascent vehicle that would deliver the samples to the orbiter-return vehicle.

There has also been a splash of coverage about the possibility of life on Titan (see this MSNBC article as an example or this more sensational article from the Telegraph or the original press release).  Like the discovery of methane on Mars, the news isn't the discovery of life but rather the composition of the atmosphere that indicates that life could be present.  In the case of Titan, it's the absence of chemicals in the atmosphere that could be compatible with the presence of a methane-based life on Titan.  Chris McKay, who has proposed that the absence of these chemicals could be a sign of life, warns that life remains the least probable explanation for the data and computer modeling.  His essay makes interesting reading (Have we discovered evidence for life on Titan?).

As an editorial note, whether to proceed with the work necessary to enable a Mars sample return in a decade or so probably remains the key decision for the Decadal Survey.  A sample return on this schedule probably requires that the Mars program continues to consume a bit less than half the planetary program budget.  If that continues, then there is not enough money to fly both the envisioned rate of Discovery and New Frontiers missions and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter.  The reports on Titan's atmospheric chemistry works makes Titan an even more interesting place to explore.  The Discovery-class Titan Mare Explorer could shed light on these issues, but I believe it would have to be selected in the current Discovery selection to fly in time to land on the lakes while they are in view of the Earth.  Of course, Titan and Enceladus deserve more attention than a single Discovery-class mission in the coming decade than this, but as noted above, the budget just doesn't go far enough to do all the missions that should be flown.

Let me know in your comments if you would be interested in seeing the budget consequences of funding either JEO or a Titan/Enceladus mission.

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