NASA Embraces Planetary Science Decadal Recommendations, With Caveats

NASA Embraces Planetary Science Decadal Recommendations, With Caveats

The head of NASA’s planetary science division is enthusiastically embracing most of the recommendations of the recent Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Praising the study overall, Lori Glaze nevertheless pointed out that the amount of money needed to execute the program is a lot more than what’s in NASA’s current plan and there are a few recommendations with which NASA does not concur.

Glaze presided over a virtual community Town Hall meeting today to present the agency’s initial response to the 781-page “Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Sciences and Astrobiology 2023-2032.”

Decadal Surveys are produced by the National Academies for each of NASA’s science disciplines — astrophysics, biological and physical research in space, earth science and applications from space, heliophysics (solar and space physics), and planetary science — every 10 years, a decade. Written by committees of experts who volunteer their time, they represent a consensus on the top scientific questions that need to be addressed in the coming decade and missions to answer them.

This is the third in the series for planetary science and the first to include astrobiology and planetary defense as part of their charter.

Co-chaired by Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute and Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, the Decadal’s top recommendation for the next flagship planetary science mission is to send an orbiter and probe to Uranus. In second place is a mission to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is thought to have an ocean of liquid water under an icy crust, similar to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

NASA is already building a spacecraft to visit Europa based on recommendations from the last planetary science Decadal, published in 2011. Europa Clipper is scheduled for launch in 2024. It came in second to a Mars Sample Return mission, which NASA also is developing for launch later this decade.

And therein lies the rub. On the one hand, funding for NASA’s planetary science missions has never been more robust, but on the other scientists are eager to explore ever more solar system targets and the amount of money is finite.

Glaze showed three charts today comparing how much it would cost to execute everything that the Decadal recommended for the next 10 years, $41.120 billion, versus the Decadal’s estimate of a “flat” planetary science budget that assumes two percent inflationary increases, $34.990 billion, versus NASA’s current 5-year plan.

The top chart shows the funding needed for both Uranus and Enceladus, while the second includes only Uranus. Glaze said studies of how to execute the Uranus Orbiter-Probe mission will start no later than FY2024 with launch possibly in the early 2030s. As for Enceladus, those studies will not begin before FY2026.

“The near term is pretty challenging,” Glaze said. “We need to keep in mind that the current planning budget we have now is short of even the level budget, so [I’m] just trying to set expectations.” The Decadal is “inspirational and we will continue to advocate for budgets to support the aspirational goals of the Survey. But just to have a little bit of reality, we need to recognize that some of the recommended activities” may not be achievable.

One wild card in the budget planning is the impact of the delay in launching Psyche, a mission to explore an asteroid by that name. Psyche was supposed to be launched right about now, but in June mission managers concluded they didn’t have enough time to validate the software. An Independent Review Board is investigating what went wrong and what’s needed to assure mission success.

Glaze said today a confirmation/termination review in November will determine Psyche’s fate, but assuming it goes forward the money to fix the problem and cover the cost of the delay will have to come from somewhere. And that’s on top of significant overruns on the Europa Clipper mission and uncertainty about the cost of Mars Sample Return, which just underwent a significant design change.

These Decadal Surveys are performed at NASA’s request and in recent years it has asked for the studies to include “decision rules” on how NASA should cope with budgetary contingencies. Glaze called this Decadal’s decision rules “incredibly helpful” that she will use as a guide in the years ahead.

The flagship recommendations are just a small part of what the Decadal covers — from specific missions to Research and Analysis (R&A) to Technology Development to the State of the Profession and more.

Glaze indicated that as “exciting” as the Decadal is, there are some points where the agency differs. As an example, the Decadal recommended that NASA develop scientific exploration strategies for various destinations in the solar system.

Glaze disagrees. Such strategies should come from the planetary science community itself, not NASA. “We need those studies to come up from the community through bodies such as the [NASA] assessment groups or advisory committees and the National Academies’ Boards and studies.” The agency needs to balance its investments across the solar system, not around specific targets, she argues.

Glaze’s division is home to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and this is the first Decadal Survey to address that area. PDCO’s task is to locate and track asteroids and comets — Near Earth Objects (NEOs) — that could threaten Earth and demonstrate technologies that could mitigate them. PDCO’s first flight project, DART, is on its way to impact a small asteroid next month to test one method of changing its trajectory.

Planetary defense has struggled to gain acceptance in the space science community because it is not considered “science” per se, but its inclusion in this Decadal Survey seems to be a game changer. The Decadal strongly supports NASA’s investment in planetary defense, especially the NEO Surveyor mission, a space-based infrared telescope specifically designed to locate NEOs. NASA proposed cutting NEO Surveyor’s budget in the FY2023 request and delaying launch for at least two years, but the Decadal calls for it to proceed expeditiously.

PDCO Director Lindley Johnson pointed out at the meeting today that the budget request was formulated before the Decadal was released.  “Now seeing what the Decadal Survey committee said … we have important insight into what the community thinks” and it is “causing us to do a serious look as we put together the FY2024 request. … It’s an example of the impact that the Decadal Survey can have.”

Indeed, Glaze enthused that the “power” of previous Decadal Surveys can be visualized by comparing what planetary science programs were underway and planned a decade ago versus today.


“The reason there’s so many missions, and this is such an exciting time for planetary science, is due in no small part to the power of our previous Decadal Surveys. And now that we have this new Decadal in hand, I just want to take a moment to dream and imagine where we’re going to be in another 10 years. I think we have a lot of great opportunities in front of us, and it’s going to be a fun ride.” — Lori Glaze

NASA’s formal written response to the National Academies, the slides used in Glaze’s presentation  and the video of the Town Hall meeting are posted on NASA’s website.


Note: the slides in this article are all from Glaze’s presentation.

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