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Casey DreierSeptember 24, 2012

A New Direction for Mars? CAPS Meeting 2012 Coverage

The Planetary Society will be following the 2012 meeting of the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), Sept 24 - 25th. CAPS is a subcommittee within the Space Studies Board, itself a part of the National Research Council, which provides scientific advice and recommendations to the federal government.

Normally we wouldn't follow subcommittee meetings so closely, but there are two very interesting topics to be presented:

  1. Europa orbiter update. This mission was ranked second in the Decadal Survey's list of mission priorities. This was conceived as a large "strategic" class mission by NASA but faces real trouble if the proposed cuts to the planetary science budget are implemented. The original idea was to send an orbiter to Jupiter in 2020 which would settle down in orbit around the icy moon Europa for years of detailed study.
  2. Mars program updates. After pulling out of the 2016 and 2018 joint European missions, NASA was directed to reformulate the future of its Mars exploration program. Thus, the MPPG (Mars Program Planning Group) was born. On Tuesday, it is set to present its proposed program for the next decade.

Both of these topics very much relate to the recent advocacy work we've been doing at the Planetary Society. If all the proposed 20% cuts to NASA's planetary science division are enacted, it's hard to see how the original recommendations of the Decadal Survey can be implemented in, well, the next decade. Right now, though, with Congress out of session and a presidential election underway, government agencies don't have a lot of budgetary direction beyond the proposed 2013 budget. So multiple mission possibilities may be presented, each one depending on a certain level of funding. Either way, it will be a strong indication of how NASA sees these missions moving forward.

It is important to note that what will be presented here is not binding in any way. These are project proposals and will invite spirited discussion from the community. This is good and how the system should work. Only Congress and the Office of Management and Budget can really set these missions in play, which should be happening sometime in the next six months.

Here's the relevant schedule we'll be following:

Monday, Sept 24th

8:45am NASA Planetary Science Division Status Report - Summary
Jim Green, NASA HQ
11:00am Mars Program Update - Summary
Douglas McCuistion and Michael Meyer, NASA Headquarters
2:00pm Europa Orbiter Update - Summary
Louise Prockter, Thomas Gavin and David Senske APL and JPL

Tuesday, Sept 25th

8:00am Mars Science Laboratory Update John Grotzinger and Robert Manning Caltech and JPL
9:00am The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer
Olivier Grasset, University of Nantes
10:15am Report of the Mars Program Planning Group
Orlando Figueroa Orlando Leadership Enterprise - Summary

 Update 9/24/12 10:18am PDT - Planetary Sciences Division Status

Jim Green, Head of the Planetary Science division at NASA's headquarters, gave a really informative talk about the current state of the division, and, more importantly, the future challenges we face with the current funding issues.

He started out with some great statistics about Curiosity. The night of its landing, NASA had over 36 million viewers on its video stream and transferred over 1.03 petabytes of data. It was one of the greatest outreach events in NASA's history. Actual viewership was likely much higher, due to events like Planetfest that streamed the video out to thousands of people.

There was a heartening update on the production of Plutonium-238, the crucial fuel used to power deep-space missions. This is a very important subject and something we haven't talked about enough here at the Planetary Society. P238 is used when solar power just doesn't make sense. This tends to be for any mission beyond the asteroid belt (Juno being a notable exception), but is also used for other reasons, like on Curiosity, where we didn't want dust settling on solar panels, or potential investigations to the dark side of Mercury. It's a very stable, very dependable power source: the twin Voyager spacecraft still have enough power from their Plutonium to keep them running 35 years into their mission.

The problem with P238, though, is that it takes time and money to manufacture. It used to not be much of an issue, since it was a by-product of nuclear weapon development. Happily, this isn't the case any more, though the consequence of that is a diminishing amount of the stuff left for space missions.

The NASA 2010 budget contained some money to start manufacturing P238 again, with the idea that the Department of Energy could share some of the cost of its production. Jim Green announced today that this will not happen. The Planetary Science division will be responsible for the entire cost. This is yet another financial strain on an already tight budget. Dr. Green said that the cost to NASA will be substantial, but it's a critical component of continued exploration, and it sounds like it will move forward. Further updates on this project will come in December of this year.

NASA is developing a new type of generator that will be more efficient in converting the heat from the P238 decay into energy. This is the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator. It will require less of the precious plutonium, which means that more can be done for less, which is crucial in the current budget environment. Dr. Green provided an update on this project's development, and he expects two models to be ready by 2016. They just need missions.

Dr. Green also discussed the (intriguing) idea of using the donated space telescopes from the NRO for planetary and heliophysics observation and research. I had always assumed these would be used almost exclusively by the astronomy community. It's nice to see it opened up to the wider community, but my feeling is the motivation is that NASA will need to draw money from many different programs in order to fund these instruments.

There was a lot of discussion on the budget proposal from 2013 that cuts 21% from Planetary Science, as well as the "continuing resolution" (CR) and sequestration. NASA right now is planning its missions around the President's budget, the one with the big cut, because so far that's the only information they have to work with. Congress has not passed any legislation to the contrary.

The following slide from Dr. Green's talk displayed the proposed missions from the Decadal Survey's recommendations vs. NASA's actual ability in lieu of the cuts. You'll notice that there are no flagship missions possible in the next 10 years, and restricted numbers of Discovery missions (like Dawn) and New Frontiers missions (like OSIRIS-REx). Dr. Green said that with this budget, they can barely afford to do the recommended two New Frontiers missions, with probably AO (announcements of opportunity) in 2016 and 2022.

The good news about this is that *any* increase in funding from the dismal 2013 proposal can make huge differences in NASA's capabilities. Remember, planetary exploration is cheap, it's amazing how much they can do with so little.

Finally, discussion of Continuing Resolution was enlightening. The CR funds all programs at 2012 levels, which means that the Science Mission Directorate, which the Planetary Science division is a part of, gets the same funding for the next six months. However, the SMD provides money to planetary science, and after pulling out from the join European ExoMars and Trace-Gas Orbiter, the amount planetary science division will actually receive will be closer to the proposed 2013 budget. This means that despite (or because of) Congressional inaction these cuts to Planetary Science have already come to pass.

 Update 9/24/12 12:45pm - Mars Program Update

The Mars program update talk was less news-worthy than Jim Green's talk, mainly because the Planetary Society has been relentless in its coverage of MER, Curiosity, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. When put together, it's stunning how many missions have been sent to Mars in the last 10 years, how many are still operating, and how much science has been done. This is an unmatched achievement for any other organization, anywhere, at any time.

The interesting (and mundane, really) parts were the budget discussion and future missions. MAVEN is coming together nicely, and plans to launch next year (whoo!). We got an interesting insight into the bureaucracy of NASA when Dr. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, refused to discuss the new Mars Insight lander, because it belongs to the Discovery mission directorate and not the Mars program, despite the fact that it's going to Mars.

The Mars program is due to receive the lion share of the cuts facing planetary science next year, which pretty much prevents any type of Martian sample return, which is the highest-priority mission set by the Decadal Survey. The graphs they displayed of the budget issues (and unknowns) show how difficult it's been to really plan missions:

The Mars program budget is very much in flux. Again, without a budget from Congress, the agency is forced to abide by the proposed budget from the Administration. The Mars Program Planning Group is working to asses what goals in the Decadal survey can be achieved with diminished funding, but we won't know what they've come up with until tomorrow. Adding a bit of frustration is the fact that we, the public, will not know the ultimate outcome of our advocacy efforts and Mars program direction until the President's budget is released in February of 2013.

 Update 9/24/12 4:30pm - Europa Orbiter Mission Concept Update

The Jupiter-Europa Orbiter was an ambitious project originally meant to go into orbit around Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, and spend 9 months making detailed maps of the surface and investigating its underground oceans. Unfortunately, the price tag for this mission was as ambitious as its goals, around $4.8 billion, and NASA asked for a "descope" of the project to make it cheaper.

A detailed study of Europa is the 2nd-highest priority in the Decadal Survey, and deemed worthy of a large, "strategic" mission to uncover the mysteries of this small moon. However, any mission out to Jupiter takes significant time and money, making it difficult to pursue in the current confines of the dismal planetary science budget.

Today's report was an update on the Europa Clipper mission, a refined mission concept that would send a spacecraft not into Europan orbit, but instead in a Jovian orbit with many close encounters by this moon. With a simplified payload, engineering configuration, and science investigations, the report today was that a comparable mission could be made for $2 - $2.2 billion, which is around the price cap NASA insisted upon (still a large mission!).

Much of the discussion was technical, and I have to say my eyes glazed over a bit, but the general gist of it was that the mission is possible within the budgetary constraints, that the science return is huge, and that one of the goals would be to perform a detailed reconnaissance of the surface of Europa for an unspecified future landing mission.

Oh, and NASA can choose between two flavors of the spacecraft: one with solar panels, and one with the experimental ASRGs I talked about earlier. Using solar panels would save about $150 million, but introduce added engineering complexity that (we were told) isn't insurmountable. Here's the concept mission with solar panels:

If I wrote this down correctly, the size of the solar panels would be comparable to the current Juno mission, and provide the equivalent power as the ASRG, around 450 - 500 watts. If I had to guess, it's that NASA will go with the cheaper option, even with the less cool usage of solar panels. It's hard to argue with $150 million.

I feel the need to emphasize that all of this discussion is about an unfunded, proposed mission. Actually, Jim Green did, too, after the presentation. There is no budget for this and no firm date for a decision. The mission concept team has made some very good progress in terms of reducing cost and preserving the science return, and it's a possibility that it will be a part of the FY2014 budget outlay. A final report from the team is due in December, and we'll probably have a better sense of if this is going somewhere soon after. It's another one of those annoying, "we have to wait for the official budget announcement in February" type of things.

Something else that was tantalizing: since the launch window for this mission would be 2020, it's conceivable that the SLS could take it on a direct course to Jupiter instead of relying on a weaker Atlas V and multiple Earth and Venus gravity-assists. I believe it was Thomas Gavin who said that the "SLS is a gift for planetary scientists." Its launch capabilities can haul much bigger spacecraft into much faster trajectories. This is no where near final, and the team is assuming an Atlas V for the time being, but I thought it was a cool idea.

Speaking of cool ideas, here's a mission concept that we can add to NASA's pile of "awesome things we can do but won't because the money isn't there":

A Europa lander! Landing on Europa just resonates with my soul, and it's so sad to me that this mission would be most likely to occur when I'm in my sixties. But just imagine the pictures. The massive figure of Jupiter rising on the horizon over an icy hill...

We'll have more coverage of the Mars program restructuring tomorrow, Sept 25th, starting at 10:15 am PDT.

Update - Sept 26th 11:45 am

I've written an entirely separate post on the results of the MPPG proposals for the future of Mars exploration.

Follow coverage of CAPS on Twitter

Read more: Space Policy, RTGs, Future Robotic Missions

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Casey Dreier

Chief Advocate & Senior Space Policy Adviser for The Planetary Society
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