Jason DavisJul 19, 2017

Congress gives NASA's planetary science division some love (and a Mars orbiter)

A recent Gallup poll found only 21 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job.

You could be forgiven for thinking that minority might include a few folks from NASA's planetary science division.

Last week, the House of Representatives proposed NASA receive $19.9 billion for fiscal year 2018, with $2.1 billion marked specifically for the agency's planetary science division—an all-time high. Part of that money would be spent on development of a Europa lander and a Mars reconnaissance and telecommunications orbiter that would launch in 2022. 

The Mars orbiter was one of three key recommendations The Planetary Society made in a policy paper released June 6

Lawmakers from NASA's House oversight subcommittee also held a hearing Tuesday focused on two flagship-class missions: the Mars 2020 rover and Europa Clipper. The hearing, which featured five planetary scientists, was largely positive, as lawmakers showered praise on NASA's efforts to explore the solar system.

I asked Matthew Renninger, a senior manager of government relations for The Planetary Society who attended the hearing, to tell me how things went.

"The atmosphere was bipartisan, collegial and positive," he wrote in an email. "The committee's enthusiasm for planetary exploration and the search for life was full and apparent." 

On the topic of Mars, Renninger noted that the enthusiasm must translate into action, if NASA is to receive the support it needs to return samples cached by the Mars 2020 rover to Earth.

Also looming large as NASA looks ahead is the question of how a Europa lander will fit into the agency's planetary science budget, should the mission continue to receive Congressional support.

Curiosity from orbit
Curiosity from orbit NASA's Curiosity rover, as imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on March 26, 2014. The rover is sitting at the edge of an outcrop. MRO is the only Mars orbiter capable of imaging rovers on the surface.Image: NASA / JPL / UA / Emily Lakdawalla (cropped and rotated from original)

An all-time high

The White House's 2018 NASA budget proposal, released in May, recommended $1.9 billion for NASA's planetary science division. That was already an all-time high—21 percent more than the Obama administration offered for 2017 and 5 percent more than Congress ended up allocating via the appropriations process.

White House budget proposals are subject to House and Senate adjustments, and require a final presidential sign off. The House shifted NASA's planetary science budget upward, to $2.1 billion.

"For too many years, NASA has been overloaded with too many missions and not enough funding," said John Culberson, the Texas representative who leads the House subcommittee that funds NASA. "This bill guarantees NASA receives the funding they need to lift America's space program above the glory days of Apollo."

The White House's 2018 budget proposal allocated $425 million for the Europa Clipper mission, but no money for a separate lander. The decision was justified as such:

"The budget provides no funding for a multi-billion-dollar mission to land on Europa that was not in the last Decadal Survey and would send another flagship mission to Europa before analysis of the Europa Clipper data is completed."

The Decadal Survey, which lays out planetary science priorities in 10-year intervals, indeed does not list a lander among its top priorities—only an orbiter. The cost of a lander could end up being higher than the Clipper mission, because it requires a dedicated telecommunications relay.

Nevertheless, the House wants NASA to proceed with lander development. Under the budget proposal, the Europa Clipper mission receives $495 million—a $70 million increase—with specific instructions to keep working on a lander that would launch by 2024. 

During Tuesday's hearing, William McKinnon, a co-chair of the National Academy of Sciences' committee on astrobiology and planetary science, noted that adding a third planetary science flagship mission to NASA's plate could impact other priorities.

"The development of any large mission like that is, of course, a programmatic challenge and can have unwelcome or worse effects on a broader cost-constrained program," he said. "But this challenge must be balanced against the scientific opportunity afforded by the promise of addressing one of the greatest scientific questions: Is there extant life beyond Earth?"

Highest-resolution global view of Europa
Highest-resolution global view of Europa Galileo captured this view of Europa on its 14th orbit of Jupiter, on March 29, 1998.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Ted Stryk

A new Mars orbiter

Another winner in the House's NASA budget proposal is a new telecommunications and reconnaissance orbiter for Mars.

NASA's current Mars orbiter fleet is aging. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft were launched 12 and 16 years ago, respectively. In addition to their roles as science missions, the two spacecraft serve as crucial telecommunications relays for landers and rovers. Furthermore, the high-resolution camera aboard MRO helps plan rover traverses and scouts for future landing sites.

That includes human missions. Even SpaceX is among those relying on MRO to look for suitable places to land.

The White House's 2018 NASA budget request included just $2.9 million for future Mars missions, increasing to $179 million by 2022—hardly enough to develop, build and launch a new Mars orbiter in five years. The House budget proposal bumps that 2018 amount up to $62 million, and requires NASA to launch a new Mars orbiter in 2022.

California Congressman Ami Bera brought up the aging Mars orbiter fleet during the hearing, asking whether MRO would still be able to support the Mars 2020 rover mission.

NASA planetary science director Jim Green did not directly mention a new orbiter in his answer. Instead, he pointed to the ability of other orbiters to assist MRO, including those operated by the European Space Agency. 

Mars 2020 project scientist Ken Farley then noted there are are more than 20 cameras on the rover, which create a "very large demand" for data downlink. 

"As you point out, MRO is an aging asset," Farley said. "But as Dr. Green pointed out, there are contingency plans to get us the data volume we need."

Sample return

One of the major features of the Mars 2020 rover is its ability to collect surface samples and store them for a future mission that would pick them up for return to Earth. At the moment, however, no such mission is planned, and NASA's current planetary science budget lacks the funding to support a sample return—even with the modest House increase.

"Are we going to bring [the samples] back?" asked Dana Rohrabacher, a House representative from Southern California, during the hearing.

"Our intention would be, indeed [...] that we would plan on bringing samples back from Mars," replied Jim Green, the director of NASA's planetary science division.

"The reason I ask that is that it seems to me rather silly to think that if we can't bring back rocks, that we're going to bring back people," Rohrabacher said. "Certainly if we aren't comfortable with the idea that we can bring back rocks, we should be focusing on getting that done before we talk about bringing people back."

The task of marking up NASA's budget now falls to the Senate. Any substantive differences will need to be reconciled before the budget goes back to President Trump for a signature. 

As in most years, that process could be swept up in larger budget battles, but regardless of the outcome, NASA's planetary science division is enjoying support from both Congress and the White House. Will that support continue, and will the agency be able to capitalize on the momentum? 

"We live in a time where we've spent spacecraft to explore the Moon, all eight planets, Pluto, several asteroids, and comets, and just last week, NASA's Juno spacecraft provided us with an amazing view of Jupiter's mysterious Great Red Spot," said Representative Bera.

"These missions are incredibly important, because it allows us to be a part of something bigger," he said.

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