Monday, November 21, 2011

An uncertain future for solar system exploration

In less than two weeks, an Atlas V rocket is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral, propelling NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft towards the Red Planet. MSL—aka Curiosity—is one of the most ambitious, and expensive, Mars missions ever flown: a rover roughly the size of a Mini Cooper automobile and equipped with a suite of instruments to study Mars and learn about when it was warmer, wetter, and perhaps more hospitable to life. Its landing in August 2012 will be the capstone to what NASA calls the “Year of the Solar System”, a Martian-year-long period that includes milestones ranging from the arrival of MESSENGER at Mercury and Dawn at Vesta to the launches of Juno to Jupiter and GRAIL to the Moon.

While this is something of a golden age for planetary exploration, with a dozen active NASA planetary missions today, there is growing unease in the planetary science community about the future. There were concerns earlier this year with the release of the decadal survey of planetary science missions, which warned of a mismatch between the highest-priority missions—a Mars rover to collect samples for later return to Earth, and a Europa orbiter—and projected budgets ExoMars estrangement

The future of Mars exploration, beyond MSL, had been intended to be one of enhanced collaboration between NASA and ESA. The two agencies had agreed in 2009 to effectively merge NASA’s long-term Mars exploration program with ESA’s ExoMars effort. In 2016 NASA would launch a European Mars orbiter carrying some US instruments, to be followed two years later by the NASA launch of what was originally planned to be separate NASA and ESA Mars rovers, later merged into a single, jointly-developed rover that would cache samples for return to Earth on later missions. That would fulfill the mission of the Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C) that the decadal survey identified earlier this year as the highest priority large, or flagship, planetary science mission in the next decade.
“The Europeans are as mad as hell,” said Hubbard of NASA’s decision not to launch ESA’s 2016 Mars orbiter.

There is evidence, though, that NASA may be backing out of that commitment. In September it informed ESA it would not be able to launch the 2016 European Mars orbiter as planned, forcing ESA officials to scramble to find an alternative approach, one that may have Russia become a partner by launching the orbiter on a Proton rocket. That decision reportedly came at the behest of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which also seeks to put the brakes on a joint 2018 mission.

“The Europeans are as mad as hell,” said Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, at a November 3 Capitol Hill forum on the future of planetary exploration jointly organized by The Mars Society and The Planetary Society. “When I talk to my European colleagues, they’re really, really upset. They feel like they’ve been swindled.”

That frustration comes after NASA and ESA had worked to lower the cost of the 2018 mission. Hubbard said the NASA cost of the mission has been reduced to $1.4 billion, more in line with a midrange New Frontiers mission. “It’s no longer a flagship-class mission,” he said, thanks to $1.2 billion provided by ESA for its role on the mission.

Hubbard believes that OMB may be misinterpreting the “decision rules” included in the planetary science decadal report on how to accommodate reduced budgets. Citing an email from someone who had met with OMB officials about the budget, MAX-C was deemed a “non-starter” by the office under current budgets even with its reduced cost, as it considers flagship missions the lowest priority of all classes of missions.

Hubbard noted that “programmatic balance”—a mix of small, medium-sized, and large missions—was a key aspect of the planetary decadal. That report, moreover, did not place flagship missions as the lowest priority. Instead, it recommended that if costs exceeded projected budgets, flagship missions should be descoped or delayed, followed by changes to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs for smaller missions.

That’s exactly what NASA has done, reducing the cost of MAX-C from its original estimate of $3.5 billion to the new estimate of $1.4 billion. “I would argue that NASA has been extremely responsive to the decadal survey and to budgetary pressure,” Hubbard said.

NASA has said little publicly about the future of its Mars exploration program and cooperation with ESA. At a news briefing last week about the upcoming MSL launch, Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars program, talked briefly about the issue. “The US and ESA realize we may have some budget concerns in the future, so ESA has approached Russia about potentially providing a launch vehicle and being involved,” he said. He declined to go into more detail because both the fiscal year 2012 budget has yet to be approved by Congress—although that may happen this week—while the 2013 budget proposal won’t be released until early next year. The subject may also come up at a hearing Tuesday on NASA’s planetary science plans by the House Science Committee.

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