Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sequester Update

When I started this blog, I decided to include posts on the political and budget issues that impact future planetary missions as well as plans for specific missions.  I try to keep the former to a minimum, but this month the all news has been the sequester.  As you may recall, this is the poison pill US law intended to force Congress to make difficult decisions on how to reduce budget deficits.  As the month progresses, it looks more likely that the sequester will happen on March 1.  

If the sequester occurs, agencies like NASA will have to cut each program (but with wiggle room to move cuts around) by 5% relative to their Fiscal Year 2012 spending.  Since half of the current fiscal year has passed (the fiscal year starts October 1), the cut to the remainder of the year spending will be 9%.  (Some agencies have been under spending so far this year to bank money in case the sequester occurs; I don't know if NASA has been one of them.)

NASA has now sent Congress a letter giving examples of how the sequester will impact each of its programs.  Because its Science program absorbed a 3.2% budget cut in FY13 compared to FY12, the program would have to absorb just(!) an additional 1.8% cut to the FY13 budget. (NASA's letter says the additional cut would be $51.1M.  My spreadsheet says it would be $91.1M, so either the letter has a typo or more probably the budget summary I work from doesn't have the complete picture.) 

NASA's Planetary Science program absorbed a 20.5% cut from FY13 to FY12, so in theory it might be spared any sequester cuts.  However, NASA has some discretion to move cuts from higher priority programs such as the James Webb Space Telescope (with a 20% FY13 budget increase) to programs it considers lower priority.  The Planetary Science program might see some sequester cuts, if the sequester occurs, but perhaps less than the 5%.  The two specific examples of programs provided by NASA for the Science program shows that the amount of cuts is flexible between programs.  The low cost Earth Science and Astrophysics mission programs would have a 10-15% cut while the research and analysis program that supports individual scientists would have a 2% cut.

Still not good news -- the Science program already is hurting from the FY13 cut and paying for the cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope.  However, the addition sequester cuts to the Planetary Science program -- if they happen -- may not be as bad as I had feared.  I also still have some hope that in the end, the two political parties will blink and either cancel the sequester (everyone agrees that blanket cuts are terrible policy) or substitute it with a more thoughtful approach to reducing the deficit.

You can read my original post on the sequester here and a previous update here.  You can read the text of NASA's letter here on the Space Ref website.


  1. The Keystone GarterMarch 17, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    It would be useful to have a gravity sensor (LIDAR?) observe Apophis during its 209 flyby. For the Enceladus hot vents, the nearby chemical springs are the most likely source of any life. Nearby sub-litho-surface clays are the most likely location for evolved life. Clays can potentially house stable air or vacuum pressures indefinitely. It would be nice to have fine detailed clay morphologies on/in Earth and on/in Enceladus.

  2. The Keystone GarterMarch 18, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    "You'll get ****load of fish. I've gone out before and motored back with so much stock little boys like you had to pack it on the pier. I always find the fish, always! And I will this time. So don't **** with me!"

    IDK, sub 1/10000 odds for an Enceladus ecosystem. Probable for primordial precursors. Without knowing the age of the vents or how global the seas are...

  3. The Keystone GarterMarch 20, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    My main concern with these repeatedly intersecting asteroids/comets is: a pandemic or a Stalinist world or robots kill everyone over 12 or something like these happens, and we lose the ability to control the Solar System. Would Apophis cause a nuclear winter?
    I like mapping its entire surface for volatiles too. One of the simplest deflection Missions I can think of is to send a laser or sunlight reflectors near the asteroid, and ablate any little snowballs that crashed into it.

  4. The Keystone GarterMarch 25, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    I'm starting to realize how annoying an object, Apophis is. A neutron bomb is a superior strategy, assuming enough time to use a nuke, if the neutron bomb doesn't work. Neutron bomb would be less likely to fragment the asteroid. Tentatively, my advice is to use a neutron bomb between 2029 and 2036. By 2068, there is a chance pandemic may restrict launch capabilities at least temporarily.

  5. The Keystone GarterMarch 25, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    Technically there isn't blast in Outer Space, or even heat, from a detonated atomic bomb. But thinking about an "air-burst" near Apophis gives me a headache.
    a) An "Armageddon" mission involves mission risk in landing, drilling, and impart fragmentation risk.
    b) An atomic or hydrogen bomb "air burst" would release most energy via gamma and x-rays. I'm guessing this would impart energy to the surface few feet of about 2/5s of Apophis. The momentum vectors of the different parts of Apophis would be all over the place in a worst-case scenario, crumbling Apophis or deflecting it or part of it closer to an Earth impact.
    c) A neutron bomb releases most energy in the form of fast neutrons. These might function the same is per b), or the neutrons might pass right through the asteroid for all I know...most likely I think they will impart momentum to maybe an 1/8th(?!) of Apohis in nearly the same direction. The vectors of the volume of Apophis might be all over the place with surface fragments being blown to an Earth impact, but I suspect the actual function will be to behave as a slightly subterranean push in one direction, unlike the "Armageddon" drill scenario and more likely to be unidirectional than an "air burst" atomic/H bomb.
    There is less power in a neutron bomb. Maybe this means it will be too weak, but I suspect this means there is less likelihood of crumbling or sending a now-higher velocity fragment to a city/ocean.
    I believe an "air burst" atomic bomb will create enough heat on the surface of Apophis that it makes modelling the velocities of subsequent Apophis or Apophis remnants, impossible. A low enough yield neutron bomb detonated far enough away, is the safest strategy here. Testing this on Earth or in Space requires working with Russia, now. Thx for the heads up, Obama.

  6. The Keystone GarterMarch 27, 2013 at 11:54 AM main concern is the drilling (and probably Russian one-two punch as well) scenario followed by subsurface nuclear bomb detonation releases fragments at a 50m/s velocity (Earth and Apophis at 30m/s) in often random directions. You won't be able to reliably see or track the trajectories, and these objects will influence others near our Earth orbit, over decades. The resultant flak would not necessarily be stable (outgassing, crumbling, collisions). Whereas, a far enough away neutron bomb custom-design to maximize neutron output, might not crumble Apophis at all. You do want to vaporize it enitirely if possible, but it doesn't seem nukes are powerful enough. The harmonized orbit makes this object behave like multiple objects (one every decade or few decades) we see with years notice, instead of decades. So test the less trustworthy (compared to H-bombs) neutron bombs, in space if necessary, 2020s. Send probes to intercept in 2029. And then from 2029-2031, hit it with a neutron bomb far away enough so as to not crumble it. The fast neutrons should function like a landed rocket.
    The Dr Evil scenario might be an issue for objects in these orbits. If it doesn't do anything, hit it with a bigger neutron bomb before considering a real nuke. You want to vaporaize it completely, or push it intact. I disagree with your scientists who think a partial vaporization is good. I don't believe the different particles emerging from an H-bomb, can be modelled reliably. I do believe fast neutrons can be, with the composition somewhat known.
    After viewing the animation of Apophis, the liability of this object went from 10-11 figures, to 11-12 figures $$. Test the neutron bomb and that will be the future paradigm for mitigating Dr Evils.

  7. A no fly zone for inanimate objects in such harmonized orbits, is what I am suggesting be enforced here using neutron bombs.
    It is okay to try to capture smaller objects that would only take out a city centre, assuming can't be easily combined. Apophis is too big and we are too far away from learning how to harvest asteroids, to consider keeping it nearby.

  8. The Keystone GarterJuly 20, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    ...just read the 1992 Ahrens and Harris paper. I much prefer the neutron bomb contingency as the crater impact "mass driver" is by design, causing fragments and is more complicated. What is missing is a contigency to clear debris.
    Both contingencies are designed to separate the main object from some ejected debris. In between is a no-man's land of smaller debris that might still remain on course or only marginally deflected courses, towards a city centre impact.
    Subsequent to the initial explosion, there need to be sensors of some sort. Probably radio but maybe light telescopes or something else. The idea here is not the tricky task of measure no-man's-land debris velocity and trajectories, it is to find a safe path for subsequent large nuclear bombs trasnported via spacecraft. Coming from behind the spreading debris pancake, perhaps using ions or VASIMR to match the asteroid's velocity (as it was before detonATION #1), a nuclear spacecraft should detonate a hydrogen bomb to clear a sphere with which to insert a ring of spacecraft perhaps using a flywheel motor to split apart from an initial single space-craft...the ring of nuclear bombs is trailing the debris field and is to simultaneously detonate with the goal of vapourizing or accelerating any ejecta still on course for Earth. The 2nd explosion might not be necessary to clear a safe course for the ring explosion, if radar is good enough to avoid the nuclear bomb loaded spacecraft have good debris-sensors and maneuverability.
    This will work for terrorist attacks as well.

  9. The Keystone GarterJuly 20, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    ...this will be the simplest last-minute missions blueprint with success above 80%. A nuke after the initial separation (explosion #1) would be useful for imaging the ejecta debris field, if there is time. No matter, I'll have the 1st hyperloop seat out of town.

  10. The Keystone GarterJuly 20, 2013 at 3:22 PM

    ...guessing the debris and slightly smaller asteroid will be separating at 1-10 cm/second or 25-250km/month. Maybe three after your initial explosion, you bring your armoured nuke in with the goal of vapourizing a path for your ring of nukes. This ring spacecraft can be hidden behind the slightly smaller asteroid to shield from the path-clearing explosion if necessary but probably it will be out of range. Maybe one week after the 2nd explosion, you bring in your ring of nukes and have them span a diameter of 20-200km before simultaneously detenoating the functioning nuke. Just relying on my physics intuition here for the details, but this general mission concept to clear debris seems to work: save the big nukes for the debris and use an "air burst" neutron bomb to divert the asteroid.

  11. The Keystone GarterJuly 20, 2013 at 3:28 PM want to wait for the main asteroid fragment post explosion #1, to be out of range of being affected by your subsequent explosions.