From the Chief Advocate
We take for granted the strange alchemy that transmutes words on a page into the rarefied metal of spacecraft, but that is, in essence, what we expect decadal survey reports to do. These reports, produced every 10 years for each of NASA’s science divisions, prioritize the top scientific questions facing the field and the missions to answer them. There is no enforcement mechanism behind these reports. Only the mutually shared respect from Congress, NASA and the scientific community allows the words contained therein to spark the complex cascade of events that ultimately produce a spacecraft.
Tuesday saw the release of the latest planetary science decadal survey. Origins, Worlds, and Life, A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023 - 2032 places Mars Sample Return, currently in development by NASA and ESA, as the top priority for the robotic exploration program. For new missions, the report recommended a Uranus orbiter and probe — yes, get used to the jokes now — as NASA’s next multi-billion-dollar flagship mission. The ice giant planet has only incurred a fleeting visit in the form of Voyager 2 in 1986. Much remains unknown about its composition and the complex system of moons and rings.
It is a big report — 780 pages! But I’ve highlighted many of the key takeaways for you. Of particular note is the report's strong endorsement of the NEO Surveyor space telescope, which will seek out thousands of near-Earth objects that could pose a threat to Earth. The White House recently proposed to slash funding for this mission, so we welcome the decadal survey’s strong endorsement.
The value of the decadal surveys comes from their open, deliberative process that represents a community consensus of scientific priority. The Planetary Society submitted two official papers to this process, and our president, Dr. Bethany Ehlmann, served on the steering committee. With this report, we will use their findings to simultaneously drive resources to new projects and defend existing ones from cancellation. In this sense, the decadal serves as both "sword and shield" for planetary science.
In the coming years, The Planetary Society intends to vigorously advocate for the resources necessary to pursue these exciting missions. I hope you’ll join us.
Until next time,
The Planetary Society
Space Policy Highlights
Planetary Science Decadal Survey: After the Red Planet, an Ice Giant (planetary.org) "The highest scientific priority of NASA’s robotic exploration efforts in the next ten years should be the completion of the Mars Sample Return campaign. In addition to sample return, the report recommends a Uranus orbiter and probe as the highest priority flagship mission, followed by an Enceladus orbiter and lander mission if funding allows. NASA’s nascent planetary defense program — for the first time a topic of consideration by the decadal survey — should complete the NEO Surveyor space telescope mission."
You can also read The Planetary Society's official statement in response to the new decadal survey.
VP Harris Pledges No U.S. Destructive ASAT Tests, Calls For Others to Join (spacepolicyonline.com) "Harris announced today that the United States will not conduct debris-generating direct-ascent antisatellite tests, leading by example to establish international norms of responsible behavior in space. The U.S. is one of four countries that have launched missiles to impact their own satellites to demonstrate they have the ability to destroy others. Russia conducted the most recent such test in November, imperiling the astronauts and cosmonauts in the International Space Station."
NASA's FY 2023 Budget Stays the Course (planetary.org) "Despite the profound political differences between the Trump and Biden administrations, NASA’s goals remain remarkably consistent under Biden. There are a few modest changes, particularly in Earth Science, but there are no major changes to human spaceflight goals, no re-assessments of current programs, no major disruptions. It's steady as she goes: to the Moon, and soon."
NASA and Space Force cooperate on near-Earth object data (spacenews.com) "NASA announced April 7 that it signed an agreement with the U.S. Space Force to release data from military satellites of bolides, meteors that enter and explode in the upper atmosphere. The data is in the form of lightcurves, or changes in brightness of these objects over time, which NASA says can help scientists better model the effects of near-Earth object (NEO) impacts. NASA has hailed an agreement ... as a key step forward in planetary defense, even as the agency defers work on a mission it says is critical to tracking such objects."
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
The Biden administration is proposing $26 billion for NASA next year, with significant increases benefiting the Artemis program, Mars Sample Return and Earth Science missions. But not everything is good news: NEO Surveyor and Mars Ice Mapper are both slated for significant cuts, and inflation may take a bite out of any increases NASA would receive on paper.
With Congress facing elections in the fall, how likely is it that NASA will get this funding? What consequences will this have on Planetary Society priorities? And what does this mean for the future of exploration? Chief Advocate Casey Dreier and host Mat Kaplan are joined by The Planetary Society's Chief of D.C. Operations, Brendan Curry, to explore NASA's next big budget.