Casey DreierAug 20, 2012

A Bittersweet Day for Planetary Exploration

NASA announced its newest mission today, a geophysical explorer of Mars called InSIGHT (an acronym for the mouth-numbing INterior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport). It’s a really exciting scientific mission which will place a seismometer on the surface, bore a probe five meters down into the Martian soil to measure heat flow, and use a clever antenna trick to very accurately measure the wobbles of the Martian orbit.

This is great. We’re going back to Mars. Curiosity will NOT be the last mission to land on the surface of another planet for a generation. We only have to wait four years.

But, it’s a bittersweet day, too, because the choice of InSIGHT means that two other truly fantastic missions were not chosen:

RIP TiME, Titan Mare Explorer

Titan Mare Explorer (TiME)
Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) Image: NASA

This mission would’ve landed a boat on one of Titan’s methane lakes. Do I need to explain this further to fully express how amazing this would’ve been? A boat on a Saturnian moon? It sounds like science fiction.

Well, I guess it still is.

RIP CHopper, Comet Hopper

Comet Hopper
Comet Hopper Image: GSFC

This proposal would’ve sent a probe to comet 46P/Wirtanen that would land multiple times in multiple places on the surface. The probe is both a lander and an orbiter. It would settle on the surface for a bit, then launch back into orbit, hang out, then settle down in another place for a closer look. The gravity wells of comets are so small that it wouldn’t need much energy to pop back out into orbit and land multiple times.

These Missions Are Cheap

All of these missions are Discovery-class, meaning they represent the cheapest missions NASA funds to the planets. Each one of these was projected to cost less than 500 million dollars for the lifetime of the mission, i.e. around $100 million/yr or less, depending on the length of the mission.

Things are so bad that right now NASA cannot afford to fund more than one Discovery mission. Beyond today, it can’t even fund any future Discovery-class missions until 2016 at the earliest. Why? Because of the proposed cuts to NASA’s planetary exploration budget.

There didn’t need to be two teams of disappointed scientists today. There could have been three teams celebrating the future of exploration and incredible science. It could have been Mars, Titan, and a comet. We as a nation could have been celebrating our ability to pursue the most exciting science in every corner of our solar system. What a wild and heady time it could’ve been.

Instead, we’re grateful to have one mission and saddened at the loss of the other two. Not because they couldn’t be done, but because we couldn’t pay for them.

This is where I remind you that it doesn’t have to be this way. We all need to make noise to our representatives in congress to say that we want to explore our solar system.

Please. Write, email, or call your representatives and tell them that we shouldn’t have to choose between Mars, Titan, and comets. Tell them to fund NASA and planetary science.

We have the money. We have the technology. Let’s have the will.

The Time is Now.

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