Saturday, October 2, 2010

Update on NASA's Planetary Program

The Venus (VEXAG), Mars (MEPAG), outer planets (OPAG), and small bodies (SBAG) assessment groups all met in the last month.  This kind of concurrency in these meetings is unusual and presents an opportunity to provide an update on future missions across the entire range of solar system (ex the sun itself).  What follows are key tidbits gleaned from the presentations that have been posted on the web (see below for links).

Steven Squyres presented an update on the Decadal Survey at the MEPAG meeting.  Squyres reported that the first draft of the report and recommendations has been written an submitted for review.  To quote directly from his presentation:

(Editorial note: My take on the "highly restricted" and "tough choices" is that one of the two flagship class missions widely discussed -- the MAX-C Martian rover and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter -- may not be recommended.  If so, I'd place my bet on a Martian rover being recommended.  To not do so would effectively end a very successful two decades of Martian exploration and lead to JPL losing the expertise it's built up on Martian entry, landing, and descent and rover technology.)

The first public release of the Survey's recommendations and report will occur at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference next March 7-11.

While not in the presentations, NASA does not have an approved budget for FY11, which began on October 1.  Congress is late with almost all appropriation bills this year, leaving NASA to operate on a continuing resolution.  Frequently when this happens, a large number of agencies receive their final budgets as part of an omnibus bill.  Usually, the new budget ends up looking much like the previous year's budget since there is not the time to consider each agency in detail.  For planetary explortion, this could represent a loss of the substantial budget increase (~11%) in the President's proposal submitted to Congress earlier this year.  Carried forward through the next decade, this increase could almost pay for an additional New Frontiers mission.  (You may have heard that Congress recently approved NASA's "budget."  This was actually an authorization bill, which is a policy statement on Congress' goals for the agency, which is critical given the changes in the manned spaceflight program this year.  Funds are actually appropriated in seperate spending bills.)

Funding for the restart of plutonium-238 was requested in the President's budget proposal, with costs to be equally shared by NASA and the Department of Energy (DoE).  The Senate's version of the DoE budget would require NASA to carry the entire $75-90 M cost.  If the eventual Congressional appropriation goes with the recommendation, NASA looking to cover the entire cost out of its budget, but "significant impact to several programs will be felt."

NASA continues to move forward to enable the Jupiter Europa Orbiter if it is recommended by the Decadal Survey.  The radiation and planetary protection concerns (the spacecraft would eventually crash into the surface of Europa, and NASA doesn't want to contaminate it with Earth organisms) makes instrument designs especially challenging.  In an unusual step, NASA will hold a two stage selection for instruments.  In the first stage, it will select two or more concepts proposed by researchers for each instrument category.  Those concepts will then receive funding for end-depth design work leading to a final selection.

NASA received several dozen proposals to consider for its next Discovery mission selection, indicating that the scientific community is not running out of ideas for relatively low cost missions.

Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division included a list of upcoming events in his presentations to the different meetings (the OPAG version is given below).  Interestingly, the OPAG version suggests that the Opportunity rover will reach Endeavour crater early 2012 while the VEXAG version suggests that the arrival will be in mid-2011.

Links to meeting presentations:

As an additional note, China launched its second lunar mission yesterday.  Per a SpaceDaily article, China hopes to achieve its first robotic lunar landing in 2013 and a sample return in 2017.


  1. VK:

    You stated

    "My take on the "highly restricted" and "tough choices" is that one of the two flagship class missions widely discussed -- the MAX-C Martian rover and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter -- may not be recommended. If so, I'd place my bet on a Martian rover being recommended..."

    If true, could that open up the possibility of a scaled down lower cost Europa mission (Frontier class), perhaps limited to a short duration study of Europa itself and not the entire Jupiter system? Although I am a huge proponent of EJSM, I would still be thrilled to get a limited Europa focused mission, especially if it could arrive there before 2027 (ideally 2018 or so).


  2. If we assume NASA will wind up with a budget similar to the Senate and House Authorization bills and the Senate Appropriations bill, there is a problem on the manned spaceflight side of NASA that could affect Planetary Science. The Administration has a goal to get astronauts to NEOs by 2025 (preceded by astronaut missions to lunar orbit and Lagrange points, and followed by missions to Mars orbit and/or moons). There's also a robotic precursor line that only gets $100M (possibly remaining at about that level in later years). That means there's a need for robotic precursor missions to NEOs (or to look for suitable NEOs that are easier for astronauts to reach), and there's a funding line for precursor missions that might only be enough for instruments or small missions. Those instruments might need science missions to get them where they're needed, and those small missions might need to piggyback on launches (in the LRO/LCROSS style).

    This might wind up affecting the outlook for Planetary Science missions discussed in the previous post. For example, NASA may find itself needing a dedicated NEO planetary science line similar to the Lunar Quest or Mars planetary science lines, which would reduce available funding for other destinations.

    I wonder how closely the Decadal Survey has been following the political events? I also wonder if these event could play a role in the selection of the 2011 New Frontiers mission.

  3. The alternative to scaling down the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, JEO, mission is to shift to a lower gear in the Mars Exploration Program. JEO launches in 2020, so it will need peak funding in about 2016-2019. That is the same time frame for the MAX-C, NASA's Mars Rover.
    In my proposal, the schedule for Mars missions would be -

    2018 - Delay the MAX-C Rover.
    Bring back the Mars Scout program. There are several great missions that could be done, i.e., Mars airplane, balloon, Polar ice Drill.
    Participate in ESA's ExoMars rover project, by contributing EDL hardware and perhaps use the Atlas 5 launcher.

    2020 - skip this window

    2022 - launch the Max-C rover

    2024 - skip this window

    2026 - JAXA, Indian, or ESA orbiter with NASA camera and relay

    2028 - NASA MSR Lander with MAV and Fetch Rover

    2030 - Mars Orbiter with Earth Return Vehicle

    The skipped launch windows will allow funding to design and develop the technology needed for the MSR MAV.

    The Mars Orbiter in 2030 could be an opportuity to save more money by cooperating with NASA's manned flight division. By 2030, the Orion program might have progressed to the point where they might want to send an unmanned Orion capsule to Mars orbit on a dry run. Orion could rendezvous with the Sample Canister launched by the MAV. The Orion then would return to Earth with the Mars samples.

  4. Phil -

    Your program makes a lot of sense if NASA and the Decadal Survey chose to make the outer planets and equal focus with Mars.

    I've read that if JPL does not have a 2018 rover and EDL mission they will lose the team they have with the expertise to carry out ambitious Mars surface missions. So, whether or not to do a 2018 rover mission is a use it or lose it opportunity.

    JPL could rebuild that expertise in the 2020s, but jumping back into an ambitious program may be difficult without a couple of simpler missions to train the team.

    This is what make setting priorities so hard.