Mars Beats Europa in NRC Decadal Survey, But Both Lose to Smaller Projects if Budget Constraints Severe

Mars Beats Europa in NRC Decadal Survey, But Both Lose to Smaller Projects if Budget Constraints Severe

The National Research Council (NRC) today recommended priorities for planetary science for the next decade (2013-2022). The constrained budget environment was a key element in the recommendations.

After voicing strong support for the Discovery and New Frontiers categories of small- and medium-sized competed missions, the NRC committee listed its priorities for large “flagship” missions. The committee’s ultimate conclusion is that flagship missions should be deferred or cancelled if budget constraints threaten the small and medium missions, research and analysis, or technology development.

First priority for a flagship mission is a Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C) mission to begin a three-mission campaign to return samples from Mars. A joint mission with the European Space Agency (ESA), MAX-C not only would analyze samples of Mars on site, but collect samples for later return to Earth by a subsequent spacecraft. A key element of selecting MAX-C as the top priority flagship mission, however, is that its expected cost be reduced. The NRC committee found that the current cost estimate for NASA’s portion of the mission would the $3.5 billion, an amount it said would consume a “disproportionate share” of NASA’s budget for planetary exploration. If NASA’s cost cannot be reduced to $2.5 billion (in FY2015 dollars), the committee believes it should be deferred or cancelled.

In the previous planetary science Decadal Survey, a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa received top priority, but it is relegated to second place this time. The committee reported that the cost for the mission is “so high that both a decrease in mission scope and an increase in NASA’s planetary science budget are necessary to make it affordable.” The estimated $4.7 billion cost (in FY2015 dollars) would cause an imbalance in NASA’s planetary portfolio, the committee said, and should be initiated only if it will not result in any other mission being eliminated.

The third priority for a flagship mission is to study Uranus. The committee said it was interested in both Uranus and Neptune – the “ice giants” – but chose Uranus because of available trajectories, flight times and costs in the decade under consideration.

Support for research and analysis (R&A) and technology development for planetary exploration missions were also highlighted in the committee’s report.

With budget realities in mind, the committee provided a “recommended” list of planetary science missions, and a “cost constrained” list. The recommended list assumes an increase to NASA’s planetary science budget, while the cost constrained list assumes the currently projected NASA budget. However, the committee also notes that it plausible that the budget could increase or decrease even more, and provides decision rules on what missions should be added or subtracted in either eventuality.

In the worst circumstances, where the budget is “less favorable,” the committee said that the first missions to be cut or delayed should be the flagship missions. “Changes to the New Frontiers or Discovery programs should be considered only if adjustments to Flagship missions cannot solve the problem. And high priority should be place on preserving funding for research and analysis programs and for technology development.”

The NRC report was commissioned by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The committee stressed the importance of NSF completing construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and using it for planetary science.

Decadal Surveys are consensus-based priority setting exercises by various space science communities conducted under the aegis of the NRC. They are performed approximately every 10 years (a decade) for each of the space and earth science disciplines looking at the scientific research priorities for the next decade. The NRC released its most recent Decadal Survey for astrophysics last year. A Decadal Survey for biological and physical sciences in space is expected to be released in the next few weeks. The solar and space physics (heliophysics) Decadal Survey recently began and is expected to be completed next week. The first Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space was released in 2007.

The planetary science Decadal Survey was chaired by Dr. Steven Squyres, best known as the “father” of the two Mars Exploration Rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — now on the surface of Mars.

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