No Outer Planets Flagship Mission on Horizon, but Planetary R&A OK Says NASA's Jim Green

No Outer Planets Flagship Mission on Horizon, but Planetary R&A OK Says NASA's Jim Green

NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director (PSD) Jim Green reiterated today that the agency’s anticipated budget for the foreseeable future cannot accommodate a “flagship” mission to the outer planets, but that does not mean the outer planets science community should stop making the case for one.   He also insisted that funding for research and analysis (R&A) in the PSD budget is healthy, but he is open to suggestions on how best to manage it.

Green spoke to NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), which is meeting in Atlanta, GA.   The planetary science program suffered a dramatic 21 percent cut to its budget in the President’s FY2013 budget request, causing great consternation in the U.S. and international planetary science communities.   The headline from that cut focused on NASA’s subsequent withdrawal from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency on two Mars missions, but the outer planets community also was sharply impacted. 

The “outer planets” are those past the asteroid belt — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — and includes investigations of their moons and Pluto.  Pluto was recategorized as a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, but some still argue that it is a planet.  At today’s OPAG meeting, NASA’s Curt Niebur pointed out that a fifth moon of Pluto has been discovered and exclaimed “If you’ve got five moons, there’s no way you’re not a planet.”

NASA has one operating outer planets mission — Cassini, which is studying Saturn and its moons — and two on their way:  New Horizons, which will arrive at Pluto in 2015, and Juno, which will arrive at Jupiter in 2016.   All three will complete their missions by 2017, so the outer planets community is obviously concerned about its future thereafter.

Green and Niebur pointed out that NASA will cooperate with the European Space Agency (ESA) on its JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission that will orbit Jupiter, making flybys of its moons Callisto and Europa, and then move into orbit around Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.   It is scheduled for launch in 2022 and arrival in the Jovian system in 2030, insertion into Ganymede’s orbit in 2032, and will end its mission by impacting Ganymede in 2033.  It is an ESA mission, to which NASA will make a payload contribution of up to $100 million.

Apart from that, however, there is nothing on the books for the outer planets community.  Green had no words of encouragement at today’s meeting.  In fact, he clarified PSD’s current funding situation.   The government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR), which, in general, funds agencies at their previous year’s level.   For FY2012, PSD received $1.5 billion, but the FY2013 request was only $1.2 billion.  Green said that the agency is proceeding as though Congress approved the President’s budget request and therefore he is spending as though he will have $1.2 billion for FY2013, not the $1.5 billion in FY2012.  The CR runs through March 27, 2013, half of the fiscal year, so roughly half of the $1.2 billion is available for spending through that time period.  What Congress will do for the rest of FY2013 and future years is very much up in the air, with the sequester still looming along with a fight over the debt limit.

Green said he is trying to formulate a planetary science program that is consistent with the 2011 National Research Council’s Decadal Survey for planetary science despite the FY2013 budget request.   That cut created three challenges:  (1) it eliminated much of the future Mars program, which had been designed to implement a sample return mission, the Decadal Survey’s top priority for large missions; (2) it lowered funding for the Discovery program of competed missions so only about half can be accomplished; and (3) it left no room for an outer planets flagship mission.  (Flagships are the most complex and therefore most expensive missions.)

NASA was allowed to reformulate its Mars program and with the recent announcement of a rover that will be launched in 2020, Green considers that problem fixed.   “We’ve solved one of them.  We’re working on the others,” he told OPAG.

Space scientists who are not working on missions often get funding for analysis of existing data, studies or early research for future missions using R&A funding.  Green acknowledged concerns that PSD did a poor job last year of managing its R&A funds.   He said he has instituted three principles to guide the distribution of R&A funds this year — program officers will assume they will get all their money rather than waiting to distribute funds until the money is in the bank; NASA promises to meet its ongoing grant commitments — proposals that are accepted will be executed; and as remaining funding is  allocated to new awards, he wants decisions made within a month after review panels meet, not many months later as happened last year.   NASA will announce which proposals were selected, which were not selected, and those that are “selectable” — meaning they meet various criteria, but funds are not currently available, although they might become available as the year progresses.

Overall, despite criticism from some in the planetary science community, Green said his R&A budget is “the healthier part” of PSD’s program.  Though selection rates for grant proposals are one in three, he said that is better than the National Science Foundation, whose selection rate runs in the 20 percent range, or the National Institutes of Health, which is in the teens.  He concluded by saying: “So will R&A be enough to manage the entire community?  Unfortunately no.  But we’re doing everything we can to maximize R&A in these difficult times.  It won’t be perfect.”

In the meantime, though an outer planets flagship mission does not seem possible, that “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep demonstrating the importance of it,” he continued.    He and Neibur stressed the need to educate policymakers and other stakeholders about what the planetary program is accomplishing.  “There’s no substitute for being diligent, because we’re on the hook to tell our stakeholders — the public, your neighbors, news interviews — about all that you’re doing,” Green stressed.

Niebur showed the following photo recently taken by Cassini as an example of the “oooh” factor:  “Every time we fly by [Saturn] we’re seeing something new.”

Photo credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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