Thursday, April 7, 2011


Several good articles out with interesting news on future planetary missions.

The first story potentially portends bad news for NASA's planetary program.  For readers living outside the U.S., the federal government has no authority to spend money if Congress has not passed and the President has not signed a budget for the current year.  We're more than halfway through FY11 without a budget, and the government has been operating on continuing resolutions with the current one set to expire tomorrow (Friday April 7).  The two political parties are at logger heads and it looks like the government may shut down as of Saturday.  Critical functions will continue to operate, including operation of all missions currently in flight.  According to NASA Watch, however, missions in development will cease development.

Editorial Thoughts: NASA has three missions -- the Mars Science Laboratory, the Juno Jupiter orbiter, and the GRAIL lunar mission -- in the late stages of preparation for launch this year.  If a shut down occurs and lasts long enough, NASA might not be able to complete preparations for launch this year.  The next opportunity to launch to Mars would come in approximately 26 months and to Jupiter in approximately 13 months.  Having to store these spacecraft and keep the mission teams together would be expensive.


The BBC has an article on the early re-planning of the NASA-ESA 2018 rover mission.  The two agencies have confirmed that they will go ahead with the 2016 Mars Trace Gas Orbiter that would also serve as a communications relay for the 2018 mission.  Early thinking is to fly a single rover, larger than either the two rovers planned (see this BBC article on the issues leading up to the mission re-plan.)

Editorial Thoughts: The original mission plan had the ESA rover focused on sophisticated chemical analyses of samples drilled from up to two meters below the surface.  The NASA rover's primary task was to collect and cache samples, but it would have sophisticated instruments on its arm to investigate rocks and soil on the surface.  A rover that combines these capabilities would, in my opinion, be a kick ass mission.  The Mars Science Laboratory will explore the chemistry of Mars in-depth at one site; the 2018 mission would add a second site and subsurface sampling.


Space Flight Now has an article on how rising costs of U.S. launchers, which NASA must use, are raising costs of NASA's science missions with the result that it can fly fewer missions.


If you think that NASA's science programs are under stress (it's not just the planetary program -- the astronomy/astrophysics and Earth science programs also have budget problems), a Nature article reminds us of the bigger challenges NASA's manned spaceflight program are facing.  

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