Mid-Term Review Positive About NASA’s Planetary Program, But Worried about Europa Costs, Mars Cadence

Mid-Term Review Positive About NASA’s Planetary Program, But Worried about Europa Costs, Mars Cadence

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released its mid-term review of the 2011 planetary science Decadal Survey today.  Mid-term reviews assess how well NASA is implementing the Decadal Survey’s recommendations.  Overall, NASA is doing a good job, it says, but the costs for the Europa Clipper mission and the future of the robotic Mars exploration program are worrisome.

Expert committees organized under the aegis of the Academies produce Decadal Surveys for each of NASA’s science disciplines every 10 years (a decade).  Half-way through that decade, a separate committee is established to assess NASA’s progress in implementing the recommendations.  The most recent planetary science Decadal Survey was issued in 2011:  Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022.

Louise Prockter, Director, Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI). Credit: LPI.

Today’s report is the mid-term review for that Decadal Survey and was conducted by a committee co-chaired by Louise Prockter, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and Joe Rothenberg, former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight and former Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The committee praised NASA for its investments in technology and in research and analysis (R&A) and was generally positive about NASA’s execution of the three basic types of planetary science missions: Discovery (small), New Frontiers (medium), and flagship-class missions like the Mars 2020 rover and Europa Clipper.

Discovery and New Frontiers are principal investigator (PI)-led missions for which scientists compete on regular schedules.  Discovery opportunities nominally occur every two years and New Frontiers every three years.  The committee noted that NASA has not been able to maintain that cadence, however. It recommended that NASA select three more Discovery missions to begin in 2019 and 2021 and issue the announcement of opportunity for the next New Frontiers mission (New Frontiers 5) as soon as possible, but no later than December 2021.

Joe Rothenberg, Independent Consultant. Credit: Rothenberg’s LinkedIn page.

Flagship missions are the most expensive in part because they seek cutting-edge scientific results and require technological advances to achieve them.  Sometimes referred to as “large strategic” missions, the Academies’ Space Studies Board completed a report last year on why they are important to pursue despite their costs.

The mid-term review committee expressed concern about future planetary science flagship missions.  The Decadal Survey recommended a series of Mars missions resulting in returning a sample of Mars to Earth as its first priority in this class.  Second was a mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa.  The Decadal Survey indicated that the priority between the two might change if the cost for the Europa mission, then pegged at $4.7 billion, could be reduced and new sources of funding became available.

Much has happened in the intervening years.  The plan to launch a series of Mars missions leading to sample return in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) was terminated early in the Obama Administration, largely for budgetary reasons.  Eventually NASA agreed to launch the Mars 2020 rover that builds on the hardware heritage of the Curiosity rover that landed there in 2012.  That is the only approved robotic Mars mission on NASA’s books today.  It will collect samples for eventual return to Earth, but they will remain in place until a yet-to-be-determined future probe is able to pick them up and bring them to Earth.

There are no approved plans to do so, however.  The committee also stressed that the three U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars right now (Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN), which are required to relay signals from spacecraft on the surface of Mars back to Earth, are getting old and need to be replaced.

The committee endorsed NASA’s recently announced “lean and rapid” Mars sample return concept and recommended that NASA continue its planning and begin its implementation.

It expressed concern about the orbital infrastructure, however: “There is a risk that ongoing and soon-to-be-landed assets on Mars will be left without telecommunications support because of the aging orbiters. … The system is fragile and aging.”

More broadly, the committee called on NASA to develop a “comprehensive” Mars exploration “architecture, strategic plan, management structure, partnerships (including commercial), and budget that address the science goals” outlined in the Decadal Survey.  The architecture and strategy “should maximize synergy among existing and future domestic and international missions” and ensure a technology pipeline and “sustenance of foundational infrastructure” including telecommunications.

Regarding Europa, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory redesigned the $4.7 billion mission considered by the 2011 Decadal Survey, reducing its expected cost and, consequently, its science return.  The committee cited the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as placing the revised cost at $3.1-4 billion (including launch).  GAO cautions that is a preliminary estimate because the project is still in formulation.  NASA does not commit to cost or schedule until a project reaches a “confirmation” milestone, which is expected in October 2018.

Europa Clipper, however, has an enthusiastic champion in Congress, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  He has ensured that Europa Clipper has the money it needs.  The mid-term review committee noted the “strong congressional support” and recommended only that NASA monitor the project’s cost and schedule “to ensure that it remains executable” without impacting other missions and priorities.

Culberson also wants NASA to build a Europa Lander. The committee recommended that it be “evaluated and prioritized within the overall [Planetary Science Division] program balance in the next decadal survey.”

The committee made a number of recommendations about how to get ready for that next Decadal Survey, which will begin in about two years. Chief among them is that NASA should sponsor 8-10 concept studies based on a list from the Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science and prioritized by NASA’s own assessment and analysis groups. It also wants NASA to “consider priorities and pathways for advancing the state of the art of CubeSats and SmallSat technology…”



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