Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mars Program Troubles

For the last week and half, I've been travelling and away from the internet. I have briefly reconnected to check on family (fine) and the planetary program (not so fine).  Three articles (see below) break the news that NASA will not be able to contribute a launcher, as planned, for the joint ESA-NASA 2016 orbiter.  It appears that ESA will be unable to continue with this mission unless it can convince Russia to provide the launch.

To briefly recap the previous plan, ESA and NASA had planned a 2016 orbiter that would provide atmospheric composition studies to settle the question of methane in the atmosphere and to act as a communications relay for future missions. A joint 2018 rover mission would collect samples for a possible return mission while carrying out a sophisticated in situ search for life, present or past.

According to the news reports, ESA and NASA are still considering the 2018 rover mission with a simplified communications orbiter.

Aviation Week summarizes the reaction among U.S. scientists with this quote: “The European Space Agency is willing to put €850 million [$1.16 billion] to collaborate with us. But for reasons unknown, somewhere in the administration somebody is refusing to release the letter that would allow the head of ESA to collaborate with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden,” Hubbard says. “Why on Earth would you refuse to allow over $1 billion of funding? It borders on the irresponsible.”

Editorial thoughts: Budget politics in the United States are, to put it in terms that avoid stronger four letter words, a mess. The two political parties have opposing views on future spending, and seem to have lost the ability to compromise.  At the same time, NASA reportedly has prioritized the James Webb Space Telescope as its must do science mission, which may reduce funds available for planetary missions.  Between these two rocks, the planetary program is navigating uncertain budgetary waters and may not be able commit to a large project. It may take one or two more election cycles before the planetary budget has a firm course, and that may be at a much lower level than today.

Articles covering this story:

Aviation Week and Space Technology

Space News (most in depth article)

Universe Today

Notes: I will still be traveling for the next two weeks, so posts will be infrequent for a while.

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