House CJS Subcommittee wants NRC Blessing on New Mars Mission or Money Goes to Europa

House CJS Subcommittee wants NRC Blessing on New Mars Mission or Money Goes to Europa

The draft bill that the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee is scheduled to markup tomorrow morning would allocate $150 million to “Mars Next Decade.”   However, the bill also requires the National Research Council (NRC) to certify that the new Mars program will lead to accomplishment of a Mars sample return mission as dictated by the recent NRC Decadal Survey for planetary science or the money will be reallocated to study Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Mars Next Decade is the new integrated plan NASA is developing to replace the Mars strategy it recently abandoned for budgetary reasons.  The previous plan was for a series of robotic missions conducted in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) beginning in 2016 and 2018.  Those two missions would be followed by others that were to collect and store (“cache”) samples from different parts of Mars and eventually return them to Earth for analysis.   NASA formally notified ESA that it would not be able to participate in those missions after the FY2013 President’s budget request was released showing a 21 percent cut to NASA’s planetary science budget in FY2013 and additional cuts in subsequent years.

NASA is now developing a new Mars exploration strategy, Mars Next Decade, that responds to the needs of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) as well as the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, with input from the Office of Chief Technologist and Office of Chief Scientist.  NASA officials stress that President Obama directed the agency to develop a plan to send humans to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s and thus a plan in needed that addresses not only science but human exploration requirements.

The draft bill would increase the total amount available for SMD in FY2013 from the $4.911 billion requested to $5.095 billion, of which $150 million is designated for Mars Next Decade.   The bill requires, however, that the NRC certify to Congress that “the chosen mission concept will lead to the accomplishment of Mars sample return as described in the most recent [NRC] decadal survey.”   If the NRC cannot make that certification,  the money “shall be reallocated to the development of a Jupiter Europa orbiter, consistent with the priorities in the aformentioned decadal survey.”

Jupiter is one of the outer planets (beyond the asteroid belt) and members of the planetary science community who focus on that region of the solar system have been arguing for a new “outer planets flagship” mission for years.   Flagship missions are the most complicated and expensive missions in SMD’s stable, usually requiring innovative technologies and promising breakthrough scientific results.  The NASA-ESA Cassini-Huygens mission is the most recent outer planets flagship mission.  Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and is still studying the planet and its moons.  One of the moons, Titan, has an atmosphere and has been the object of intense scientific interest for many decades.  An ESA-built probe, Huygens, detached from Cassini and traversed Titan’s atmosphere in 2005 and landed on its surface.   Huygens providing tantalizing images that whetted the appetite of scientists and the public for more.

In addition to Cassini, two other missions are currently headed to the outer solar system.  Both are more modest missions, but still will produce exciting science.   The New Horizons mission was launched in 2006 and will reach Pluto in 2015, and the Juno mission was launched last year for its 5-year journey to Jupiter.   They and Cassini are expected to complete their missions by about 2017-2018 and outer planet scientists want a new mission to replace them.

There are many fascinating places to visit in the outer solar system, however.   Scientists are especially eager to study another Saturnian moon, Enceladus, and one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.   Liquid water may exist there, with the consequent possibility of life.

Choosing among the many places to visit within a constrained budget is a task left to the NRC and its decadal survey process wherein the relevant science community reaches consensus after significant debate on the top scientific priorities for a given 10-year period (a decade, hence the term “decadal survey”).   The most recent NRC planetary science decadal survey ranked returning a sample of Mars to Earth as its first priority for a flagship mission, with a Europa mission second.  The report laid out decision criteria for which of its top priority flagship missions should proceed depending on mission costs and funding availability.

The current fiscal environment was not envisioned when that study began, however.  With intense focus today on cutting the federal deficit, many agenices are in fiscal distress, including NASA.   In the FY2013 budget request,  NASA’s planetary science budget took the biggest cut of all of NASA’s mission areas.   The planetary science community is not just hoping, but expecting, Congress to come to the rescue.  It appears they are correct.  The Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee marked up its version of the bill yesterday, adding $100 million for Mars exploration.  The text of that bill has not been released, so whether it includes similar provisions about obtaining an NRC certification that any new Mars mission conforms with the decadal survey is unclear.  The full Senate Appropriations Committee will markup that bill tomorrow morning also.

The House CJS subcommittee markup is at 9:30 am ET tomorrow morning in H-140 Capitol.   The Senate full committee markup of the CJS bill is at 10:30 in 192 Dirksen.

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