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Pricey planetary probes could fall under budget ax

Posted: March 17, 2011

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MARFA, Texas -- Grand robotic missions to Mars, Jupiter and beyond are the embodiment of planetary scientists' most audacious dreams, but it's up to researchers to make their case in Washington, where a bogged-down budget process threatens to kill any future NASA flagship solar system exploration probe.

Artist's concept of a Europa orbiter. Credit: NASA
That was the message from Steve Squyres, a respected researcher from Cornell University, earlier this month at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

President Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget request released last month shows a gradual but marked decline in planetary science funding over the next five years, but the spending plan is only "notional" and does not represent policy, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget, or OMB.

Despite promises to re-evaluate the budget again next year, the waning spending on planetary exploration captured scientists' attention.

"This budget is a projection by OMB of what the future planetary exploration budget might look like," Squyres said. "Tf that budget were actually implemented, it would be mean the end of flagship class science at NASA in the planetary program."

The startling news is buried beneath more prominent debates on the future course of NASA's human spaceflight programs and the appropriate balance between commercial and government transportation.

Squyres was presenting the planetary science decadal survey, a once-every-10-years National Research Council study that ranks robotic probes based mostly on scientific value, but also on programmatic balance, technical and engineering readiness and the availability of appropriate trajectories through the solar system.

"What I'm hoping is the planetary science community in the United States can use this decadal report as a rallying point to argue via the legislative process for a strong enough budget to actually carry out the program that we've recommended," Squyres told Spaceflight Now.

The decadal survey's top recommendation was to continue with NASA's small and medium-class planetary missions under the Discovery and New Frontiers programs. Those probes are cost-capped at $500 million and $1 billion, respectively.

If there is money left over in NASA's budget, the agency should first consider a Mars rover to collect and stow rock samples for an eventual mission to return them to Earth. If NASA can't make that project affordable, they should turn to developing an orbiter to probe Jupiter's icy moon Europa, according to the decadal survey report.

The Obama administration's funding proposal calls for nearly $1.5 billion for NASA's planetary science division in fiscal year 2012, but that spending would drop to less than $1.2 billion by fiscal year 2016.

The budget document indicates the White House would make actual funding decisions on a year-by-year basis in consultation with Congress.

Ed Weiler, the chief of NASA's science directorate, made it clear in February NASA could not afford all the of the planetary missions on its plate.

"We do not have enough money in the planetary program, by any stretch of the imagination, to fund a full-up Europa mission, a full-up Mars program, a full-up New Frontiers program, a full-up Discovery program and a full lunar program," Weiler told reporters in February.

Speaking to the NASA Advisory Council's planetary sciences subcommittee March 3, Weiler repeated his gloomy assessment, saying the budget did not provide adequate funding for all seven programs currently under the planetary division's purview.

Weiler told the subcommittee the White House's fiscal year 2012 budget request would probably not support more than four healthy programs.

The NASA planetary sciences budget now includes the Discovery and New Frontiers programs, Mars exploration, the Lunar Quest program and line items for the Cassini missoin at Saturn, technology development and basic research.

Artist's concept of the MAX-C rover. Credit: NASA
The decadal survey was direct in its support for the Discovery and New Frontiers programs, and it suggested modest investments in technology and research projects. It also endorsed the planned launch of a joint NASA-European Space Agency orbiter to Mars in January 2016.

"We must preserve Discovery," Squyres said. "We must preserve New Frontiers. The first thing to go after is the flagships. That is what our community told us emphatically."

The Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher was at the top of the survey's recommendations for a flagship mission in the next decade. Scheduled to launch in 2018, the mission would collect rocks from the Martian surface and store them for retrieval by a subsequent, still undefined, mission.

The MAX-C mission is currently projected to cost NASA $3.5 billion. Squyres and his committee urged NASA to drastically "descope" the mission, remove some science gear and make the rover more simple.

"Descoping is a difficult thing," Squyres said. "Descoping requires discipline. It requires giving up some of our most cherished hopes of what a mission might be like."

With the descope and additional contributions by ESA, Squyres said the MAX-C rover has a good chance of being affordable, costing NASA less than $2.5 billion.

"It's clear we're not going to be able to do everything that's been on our plate the last few years," said Ron Greeley, a professor at Arizona State University and chair of the advisory council's planetary science subcommittee.

Scientists fear the $4.7 billion Europa mission appears to be probe mostly likely to be axed or delayed under the tightening budget and decadal survey priorities.

The decadal survey said NASA should only pursue the Europa orbiter probe if there is a provision for a "new start" specifically outlined in future budgets. And it's only an option if NASA can't make the Mars sample cacher affordable.

"There's no provision for new strategic missions, the flagship missions that have been the hallmark of the agency. It's just not there," Greeley said March 3.

But President Obama's 2012 budget request isn't likely to be passed, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the agency's advisory board there is robust support for planetary science missions on Capitol Hill.

Nevertheless, NASA officials say they will restructure the planetary program to match a projected budget reduction, even if the cuts aren't as deep as the White House proposed in its notional numbers.

"We can't afford to keep everything," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division.

Green said NASA is taking a proactive approach to the budget challenge. The agency is already looking at a "clean sheet" redesign of the 2018 Mars mission, which currently includes a pair of rovers from NASA and ESA -- the MAX-C sample cacher and Europe's long-delayed ExoMars mission.