Note: An earlier version of this report used a graph from the wrong report. This version corrects that error and expands on the issues facing NASA's Earth Science program.
Lots of news in the past week, so let’s get started.
Lots of news in the past week, so let’s get started.
NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group provided an update to the Planetary Sciences Subcommitte, a group of leading scientists that advises NASA on its plans. The MPPG group was formed to develop a new Mars exploration plan that (1) fits within the reduced budgets for planetary exploration projected by the President’s budget and (2) merges the goals of scientific exploration with the goals of preparing for eventual manned missions in the 2030s. The group’s chairman revealed almost no details of what the group is considering, but did list the criteria by which the program will be evaluated. The list is long, here I’ll reproduce the top three Figures of Merit (FOM) (you can read the full list on slide 7):
- FOM-1: Degree to which the program advances overarching scientific goals/ objectives of Mars exploration as stated in NRC Decadal Survey and within the MEPAG Goals document, including provision of surface samples from Mars to Earth laboratories
- FOM-2: Degree to which the program advances knowledge and capabilities required to enable eventual human exploration of the Mars “system” (orbit, moons, surface), on a time-frame consistent with the President’s challenge (2030’s)
- FOM-3: Degree to which the program infuses technology developed via Agency-level investments to reduce risk and increase capabilities for robotic scientific and eventual human-based exploration
The eventual science goal is to enable the return of samples to Earth no later than 2033, possibly by a manned mission that orbits Mars without landing (to demonstrate long duration flight capabilities without the difficulties of landing on and launching from the surface of Mars).
The chairman of the group did state (see this Space News article) that the earliest Mars mission under the new program would be in 2018, but budgets would constrain a mission for that launch date to an orbiter or a simple lander. If the first mission is in 2020, then the mission could be a rover. [Editorial note: The presentation states that the scientific community would like a future rover mission to find and cache samples. A rover mission would maintain NASA’s expertise in Mars entry, descent, and landing. However, an orbiter may be necessary to provide a communications link, monitor atmospheric conditions for future landers, and image potential landing sites. A difficult tradeoff since funding an orbiter in 2018 may delay an eventual rover mission past 2020.]
The good news here is that science appears to be a key driver of the new program with an eventual sample return as a key priority.
The Bad: Part 1
Did my last post on Congress’ response to the President’s budget proposal with significant increases in planetary science funding (compared to the President’s proposal) seem optimistic? This past week, the Administration gave its response (specifically to the House’s budget) and threatened a veto:
“The Administration strongly opposes the level of funding provided for the commercial crew program, which is $330 million below the FY 2013 Budget request, as well as restrictive report language that would eliminate competition in the program. This would increase the time the United States will be required to rely solely on foreign providers to transport American astronauts to and from the space station. While the Administration appreciates the overall funding level provided to NASA, the bill provides some NASA programs with unnecessary increases at the expense of other important initiatives.”
One of the major programs getting an increase would be the planetary program. However, NASA’s planetary science budget is a small piece of a much larger disagreement between the two political parties that I suspect may not be resolved until after November’s election and we know who will be running the various branches of government. (SpaceNews provides a good summary of the immediate disagreements on the House spending bill.)
The Bad: Part 2 (and may become an Ugly)
Space News reports that Europe’s support for the ExoMars 2016 and 2018 missions with Russia are hanging by a thread with continuation a 50-50% proposition. One concern is the whether there is time to implement the 2016 mission, but a larger concern appears to be the need for Europe to find an addition 350M Euros beyond the 850M Euros already committed. The Space News article lists possible sources for additional funding so there is still hope despite the financial crises in Europe.
All of NASA’s science programs are guided by Decadal Surveys issued approximately every ten years. At the five year mark, an outside group of scientists issues a mid-term review of progress towards achieving the decadal review. The mid-term report for the Earth Science’s program was recently released and the news isn’t good. The number of instruments available to observe the Earth and its changing climate, surface and oceans is expected to drop dramatically by 2020.
The following text from the report's executive summary states the problem and the issues that led up to it.
"Finding: The nation’s Earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability as long running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or canceled.
"However, for several reasons, the Committee on Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Program found that the survey vision is being realized at a far slower pace than was recommended. Although NASA accepted and began implementing the survey’s recommendations, the required budget assumed by the survey was not achieved, greatly slowing implementation of the recommended program. Launch failures, delays, changes in scope, and cost estimate growth have further hampered the program. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made significant reductions in scope to the nation’s future operational environmental satellite series, omitting observational capabilities assumed by the decadal survey to be part of NOAA’s future capability and failing to implement the three new missions recommended for NOAA implementation by the survey...
"Thus, despite recent and notable successes, ... the nation’s Earth observing capability from space is beginning to wane as older missions fail and are not replaced with sufficient cadence to prevent an overall net decline. The committee found that the number of NASA and NOAA Earth observing instruments in space is likely to decline to as little as 25 percent of the current number by 2020. This precipitous decline in the quantity of Earth science and applications observations from space undertaken by the United States reinforces the conclusion in the decadal survey and its predecessor, the 2005 interim report (NRC, 2005), which declared that the U.S. system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse. The committee found that a rapid decline in capability is now beginning and that the needs for both investment and careful stewardship of the U.S. Earth observations enterprise are more certain and more urgent now than they were 5 years ago."
I use the data from several instruments aboard NASA's Earth Science missions and I understand how important this data is to measuring and then analyzing the state of our planet. The studies I and my colleagues conduct simply would be impossible without the investments made over the past decades. I strongly support increased investment in missions to explore our home world. (Full Disclosure: NASA’s Earth Science program funds a portion of my research, and I depend on data from several instruments for my research.)