Dragonfly Takes One Step Forward, But Only One

Dragonfly Takes One Step Forward, But Only One

NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan is one step closer to final approval today. A dual-quadcopter that will fly over Titan’s surface, Dragonfly successfully passed a milestone review that allows it to move into final design and fabrication. NASA delayed committing to actually proceeding with the mission because of budget uncertainty, however, and slipped the projected launch date another year to 2028.

Dragonfly completed its Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C review where it moves from Phase B, preliminary design and technology completion, into Phase C, final design and fabrication. Nicky Fox, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), posted the news on X.

Ordinarily KDP-C, also called “confirmation,” is where NASA decides to proceed with a mission and commits to its cost and schedule. In this case, however, NASA postponed that step until after President Biden submits his FY2025 budget request next year when they’ll have a better idea of the future funding landscape.

At a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) in Boulder, CO today, SMD Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze explained that “it’s not a normal process” because of budget uncertainties.

“How do we confirm a mission if we don’t quite know what the budget horizon looks like? When and if Dragonfly goes forward, they need to go forward with an executable budget profile.” — Lori Glaze

The Biden Administration’s FY2024 budget request proposed a 7.1 percent boost for NASA including a substantial increase for science, but that crumbled after President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated the debt limit deal codified in the Fiscal Responsibility Act. NASA and other non-defense agencies now are expecting to be held to their FY2023 funding levels, at best, in FY2024 with a one percent increase in FY2025.

For now, though, the mission has at least cleared the early phases of the project’s development and is on to the next step.

NASA chose Dragonfly as the fourth in its series of New Frontiers missions in 2019. New Frontiers missions are competitively selected every few years from proposals by the scientific community and led by Principal Investigators (PIs) at universities or other institutions. Dragonfly is managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and led by Elizbeth (Zibi) Turtle.

Glaze could not say today how much the mission will cost, but acknowledged it’s more than anticipated.  She stressed much of that is not because of factors under the control of Turtle or APL, but schedule delays created by NASA Headquarters.

“There was an initial — right out of the gate at selection — delay of the launch date, which would have some cost implications. And then there were some budgetary challenges within Planetary Science, so there were at least one or two other delays in the launch date because of the NASA funding profile, that we didn’t have what the project required. And now we have this current replan also because of near-term funding challenges.  …

The bottom line is it’s a very complicated and complex mixture of issues that have resulted in a higher cost for Dragonfly than what was originally planned.  A lot of that we take on our shoulders at headquarters.  If we delay the launch, we have to assume responsibility for the additional cost that goes along with that.” — Lori Glaze

Originally expected to launch in 2026, the date already had slipped to 2027 and now is 2028.

Even though there is no official cost estimate for Dragonfly, an OPAG member said the “rumor mill is Dragonfly is approaching flagship costs” and asked whether it shouldn’t now be treated as a flagship mission.

Flagship missions are NASA’s most technically challenging and expensive projects. Selected and managed by NASA itself instead of PIs, the costs are $1 billion or more. Often a lot more. The Mars Perseverance rover currently collecting samples on the surface of Mars and the James Webb Space Telescope are flagship missions. By contrast, New Frontiers missions are capped at $850 million not including operations and launch, although NASA may raise that for the next solicitation.  Flagship missions use a different process for engaging with the planetary science community since they are directed rather than competed missions. Glaze didn’t dispute that the cost is approaching the flagship level, but stressed the scope hasn’t changed. “There has been a lot of conversation” at NASA headquarters, but there’s “incredible support behind the PI-led mission as it stands.”

Many of NASA’s science missions are struggling not only because of budget uncertainty, but the effects of inflation and continuing supply-chain issues that require ordering parts much earlier in a project’s development, increasing front-end costs. Fox and Glaze have laid out their strategy for setting priorities in this climate, basically to keep the focus on missions that already have been approved and those with international commitments. New missions, like Dragonfly, may have to wait.

This image is from data collected during the 147-minute plunge through Titan’s thick orange-brown atmosphere to a soft sandy riverbed by the European Space Agency Huygens Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer on Jan. 14, 2005. A movie compiled from data collected during the descent shows Huygens’ view of the journey. ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan is of great scientific interest because it’s the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere and liquids flowing across its surface — both composed of methane. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that orbited Saturn and its moons for years brought along ESA’s Huygens probe that descended through Titan’s atmosphere and landed on the surface in 2005 sending back tantalizing images and data. Dragonfly would add vastly more.

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