NASA's Jim Green Worried About LRO, Comments on Cassini Extension and Europa

NASA's Jim Green Worried About LRO, Comments on Cassini Extension and Europa

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green told a NASA advisory subcommittee today that funding for operations of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is not assured for the rest of FY2014.

LRO is part of NASA’s Lunar Quest program and Congress provided no funds for it in FY2014.  The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) also is part of Lunar Quest, but remaining funds in FY2014 are sufficient for that mission, which has a short lifetime.

LRO, however, can continue operating in lunar orbit for some time yet.   Launched in 2009, it is providing detailed images of the lunar surface.   Green hopes to get permission to shift funds within his budget through NASA’s FY2014 operating plan to maintain LRO operations.  Operating plans detail how NASA plans to spend the money Congress appropriated.  Historically, Congress acquiesces to comparatively minor changes such as this, although last year Congress and the Administration waged a multi-month battle over how to spend FY2013 funds.  That funding was significantly impacted by the sequester and two congressionally-imposed rescissions and disagreement arose about priorities.

NASA’s FY2014 operating plan was due to be submitted to Congress within 45 days of enactment of the FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act on January 17.   Green told the NASA Advisory Council’s Planetary Science Subcommittee today that it had not yet been submitted to the best of his knowledge.

He said he did not believe it was Congress’s intent to cancel LRO and is optimistic that funds will be found.   In addition, however, LRO also must successfully emerge from NASA’s “Senior Review” process where scientists who want to extend a spacecraft’s mission after its primary mission is completed must go through a peer review process to evaluate the mission’s scientific merit to determine if it warrants the additional costs to continue operations.  LRO is one of seven missions that will be considered by the 2014 planetary science Senior Review in an era of tight funding, but Green sounded optimistic.   If LRO is recommended for continuation by the Senior Review and money is found, it will be shifted into NASA’s Discovery line of planetary missions since the Lunar Quest line no longer exists.

NASA’s FY2015 budget request for planetary science is $1.280 billion, less than the $1.345 billion appropriated for FY2014.

Another mission slated for consideration by the Senior Review is Cassini.   Orbiting Saturn since 2004, Cassini continues to send back valuable information not only about Saturn itself, but its moons, including Titan.   Cassini’s mission definitely will end in 2017 because it will run out of fuel and NASA wants to intentionally deorbit it into Saturn’s atmosphere so it does not contaminate other nearby bodies like Titan.  But that is three years from now and Cassini scientists want to extend operations until then.

Wording in a document released by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) explaining NASA’s FY2015 budget request implied that a decision to curtail operations of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint aircraft-based astronomy project by NASA and its German counterpart, DLR, was made in order to ensure funding for Cassini operations.  Green insisted that was a matter of poor writing, however, not fact.   SOFIA is part of NASA’s astrophysics program and ordinarily each NASA science discipline – astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics and earth science – must solve budgetary problems within their own budgets rather than taking money from others.

Green passionately explained today that there was no “horse-trading” between NASA’s astrophysics and planetary science offices as some suggest: “Don’t buy into that.”  Budget pressures are everywhere, he insisted, and each of NASA’s science disciplines still must find its own solutions.  Every planetary science program subject to the 2014 Senior Review must make its best case and NASA will match that peer-reviewed priority ranking to budgetary resources, Green said, adding that Cassini advocates should take nothing for granted – “there is no substitute for an excellent proposal.”

In addition to LRO and Cassini, the other five missions that will be considered by the Senior Review for extended operations are associated with Mars exploration:  the Mars rover Opportunity; the Mars rover Curiosity; the Mars orbiter Odyssey; another Mars orbiter MRO; and a NASA instrument (Aspera-3) on Europe’s Mars Express (MEX), another Mars orbiter.

Green discussed many other aspects of NASA’s FY2015 budget request, including the $15 million designated for studies of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.   He excitedly noted that this was the first time that the Obama Administration is requesting funds for Europa studies, but repeated what other NASA officials have said – they want to determine if major scientific objectives could be met with a mission costing NASA no more than $1 billion.   (Congress added money for Europa in FY2013 and FY2014, but the Administration did not request any.) The original cost estimate for a Europa mission was $4.7 billion.  Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised a different type of mission dubbed Europa Clipper that had much less scientific capability, but could still provide important scientific data, for about $2 billion.   Cutting that cost in half will be a challenge.  International partnerships are one possibility, but Green said that based on past experience it would not be a 50-50 split so the $1 billion that NASA could provide would still represent the preponderance of the cost.

The $15 million for Europa in the FY2015 budget request is only for that one year.   No funding is requested for future years, so it is not a “new start” indicating that the Obama Administration is committed to executing such a mission within a definitive time frame.

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