Thursday, August 2, 2012

Updates Before Curiosity's Landing

The news for the next couple of weeks at least will be dominated by news of the Mars Science Laboratory’s landing and first days on Mars.  I will be in the field Sunday night without access to the internet and so will have to learn of its fate Monday morning.  God speed, Curiosity!

With the focus on Curiosity, I suspect that few of you will be interested in news on future missions for a couple of weeks.  So in today’s post, I will catch up on a lot of stories that I haven’t had time to cover in the past month or so.  I’ll start with news that will affect the potential flight of real hardware and will close with more general policy news.

An in-depth overview (if 52 pages can be considered an overview) is available at no charge from thejournal Space Science ReviewsScroll through the recently posted papers for a selection of other open access papers covering several instruments.   

The journal Nature’s website has an article on the Curiosity landingthat includes a nice illustration of how much tighter Curiosity’s landing zone will be than previous missions with the area of the city of London to provide scale.  

The key future planetary mission news of August will be the expected selection of the next NASA Discovery mission and the delivery of the proposed future NASA roadmap.  NASA posted a one sentence notice about a week ago that the announcement of which mission it would pick for the next Discovery mission would come in August.  I expect that the announcement will come in the second half of the month so as to not conflict with the news from Curiosity’s landing.  The NASA roadmap will come from the panel NASA established last winter that will cover the program from 2018 to the early 2030’s (see this summary at  It’s unclear what may be disclosed publicly and when.  What will be possible will be tightly tied to NASA’s proposed 2014 budget, so we may not learn the details until next winter.

A lecture by the Discovery proposal TiME to Titan by the Principle Investigator, Ellen Stofan, is available from this link.  

The European and Russian space agencies continue to make progress with the definition and development of their joint ExoMars mission.  So far as I know, Europe’s decision on whether or not to proceed with the mission is still planned for this fall and depends on finding sufficient funding to close the gap between what member nations have committed and what is needed. reprinted an article from Voice of Russia that provides a list of Russian contributions.  It’s not clear from the article whether these are a list of possible contributions or those that both agencies have agreed to.  The article states that the 2016 orbiter will carry several Russian instruments.  No mention is made of previously discussed Russian provided small landers.  The 2018 rover mission apparently will include a Russian-provided geophysical station that will be delivered with the rover to the Martian surface. 

China has announced that its first lunar lander will arrive on the surface of the moon in the second of 2013 (see here).    The mission is expected to survive for atleast three months on the surface.  China's eventual goal is to return a lunar sample to Earth.  

ESA and NASA have both released their announcements of opportunity for the science community to propose instruments for ESA’s JUICE mission to the icy moons of Jupiter.  (NASA’s contribution to the mission will be $100M, or about 10% of what I recall will be the total investment by ESA and individual European nations for instrument development.)  ESA and Russia are also discussing possible Russian contributions to the mission.

Spectrometers on the Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiters has found rocks exhumed from up to several kilometers below the surface of Mars by impactors show that water was present for extended periods below the surface (see article here).  Geologists debate whether the water at the surface of Mars was present for extended or only short periods of time. I wonder if these rocks that are now on the surface might become the focus of a future rover mission to explore whether the ancient depths of Mars might have provided a habitat for life?  

The B612 Foundation has announced plans to raise several hundred mission dollars to launch a space telescope that will seek to find 90% of the near Earth asteroids 100 m and larger in diameter and 50% of those as small as 30 m for an expected total of 500,000 new asteroid discoveries..  If the required funds are acquired, the spacecraft would orbit near the orbit of Venus to look outward toward Earth’s orbit.   

And now for some policy news.  Pamela Gay at discusses how cuts in NASA’s budgets to fund researchers and public outreach are affecting her and other researchers.  (Full disclosure: A portion of my research funding comes from NASA, and I also worry about future funding from both NASA and my other funding agencies.)  She writes, “NASA cut backs could cut me, and deeply hurt my team unless I find other means of funding us. With the National Science Foundation also cutting back… The traditional funding mechanisms aren’t a modern day solution.”  Dr. Gay goes on to discuss a new Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for researchers through crowd sourcing.  If you would like to make a difference to planetary research and can make a contribution (or are just curious) check out their website.  For those of you who are not researchers, you may not know that a few tens of thousands of dollars can fund a graduate student for a year, and less than $100K can fund many small focused studies.  The group currently is looking to raise $75K to fund startup costs. 

And finally, NASA’s Small Body Analysis Group (SBAG) has published its findings from its meeting last May.  Their comments on the changing nature of the Discovery program dove tail an opinion piece is this week’s Nature journal (subscription required).  In Nature, Daniel N. Baker (University of Colorado, Boulder and previously a laboratory director at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center) urges that NASA rebalance it planetary and Earth science programs to provide a greater emphasis on smaller Principle Investigator missions such as the planetary Discovery and New Frontiers and the Earth science Venture missions.  He writes that, “Increasingly, NASA's focus is on big projects that promise to return tremendous science benefits. But these programmes absorb most of the available funding for space research. They shift resources away from efficient and effective principal investigators (PIs) at universities, an approach in which a single person is responsible to NASA for the success of a mission, and towards bureaucratic NASA centres. This is the wrong direction for space research, especially in a time of scarce funding… Universities have been a fertile training ground for thousands of space engineers and researchers, who have learned to be creative while sticking to budgets and schedules… [Yet,] University labs are being driven out of business,” and losing the capacity to develop PI-led missions.

Editorial Note:  In the past, NASA’s planetary budget was large enough to support vigorous programs of larger, agency-led missions as well as smaller PI-led missions.  Now NASA and the scientific community it supports will have to decide on what the new balance should be.  Perhaps creative solutions may be possible.  For example, NASA might develop a new series of smaller, Opportunity-class Mars rovers but let potential PI’s compete to define the payload and landing site.

What follows are the comments from SBAG website:

The Discovery program has substantially collapsed as a source of planetary missions. In its first decade (1992–2001), ten missions were selected for launch. During its second decade (2002–2011), only one was selected.  Implementation of the planetary decadal survey recommendation for a 24-month cadence of Discovery AOs is imperative.

Merging the Mars Scout program with Discovery puts yet further pressure on this program. Restoring the Discovery program to two selections for launch per call is very important to the future of American solar system exploration.

It is noted that one new selection is pending as of this date. The next planned Discovery opportunity currently delayed until 2015. Within the resources it has for missions and mission planning activities, NASA and the Planetary Science Division should work to provide a Discovery opportunity sooner than 2015, as advocated by the decadal survey.

DISCOVERY HISTORY (Initial selections: NEAR, Pathfinder)
AO Date      Missions (and year selected)
1994:          Lunar Prospector, Stardust (1995)
1996:          Genesis, CONTOUR  (1997)
1998:          Deep Impact, MESSENGER (1999)
2000:          Kepler, Dawn (2001)
2002:          *No AO Released*
2004:          *No Mission Selection*
2006:          GRAIL (2007)
2008:          *No AO Released*
2010:          Not yet selected (selection expected in 2012)

No comments:

Post a Comment