Squyres: Mars Communications Relay Orbiter Would Pass Decadal Survey Test, Europa Also A Possibility

Squyres: Mars Communications Relay Orbiter Would Pass Decadal Survey Test, Europa Also A Possibility

Steve Squyres shared his personal views today of what new Mars mission NASA might initiate that would conform with the 2011 Decadal Survey for planetary science that he chaired for the National Research Council (NRC).  A Mars orbiter whose main purpose is serving as a communications relay between spacecraft on the surface and Earth would fit the bill, he said.   He added that a Mars orbiter of that nature followed by a descoped mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and then a Mars sample return mission is plausible if Congress restores funding for planetary science as expected.

Squyres is spending a lot of his time helping policymakers and scientists interpret the Decadal Survey as NASA restructures its Mars program in the wake of proposed budget cuts to NASA’s planetary exploration program by the Obama Administration.

Congress appears likely to restore some of those cuts, but wants to ensure than any new program follows the Decadal Survey’s recommendations.  The Decadal Survey’s top priority for large missions is to return a sample of Mars to Earth for analysis.   The White House determined that the program outlined in the Decadal Survey is not affordable under current budgetary circumstances resulting in NASA withdrawing from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on two missions in 2016 and 2018.  NASA has created a study group to come up with a less costly option for launch in 2018 or 2020.

The House-passed version of the FY2013 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which funds NASA, adds $88 million to Mars exploration (for a total of $150 million).  However, it says that the money can only be used for a Mars mission that leads to accomplishment of Mars sample return as stated in the Decadal Survey.  It requires the NRC to certify that any new Mars mission NASA proposes does, in fact, carry out that objective.  Otherwise, the added funds are to be used for the Decadal Survey’s second priority, a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.   The Senate Appropriations Committee added $100 million for the Mars program without a similar caveat.

NASA created a Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), headed by retired NASA Mars program manager Orlando Figueroa, to come up with options.   NASA announced today that it received over 400 abstracts for papers to be presented at a June 12-14 conference where concepts will be discussed.  The MPPG report is due to be submitted to NASA in mid-August.

Winning a nod of approval from the NRC could well determine the fate of whatever mission NASA chooses.  The key is whether it will lead directly to Mars sample return.  Squyres told NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in February that new missions to Mars “that lead directly to sample return” have very high priority, but otherwise do not and should be competed in NASA’s Discovery program of smaller planetary exploration missions instead.

Squyres, a highly respected planetary scientist best known as the “father” of the popular Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, offered his personal opinion today at a meeting of the NRC’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) on what mission might meet that criterion. 

Squyres told CAPS that a Mars orbiter whose main purpose is providing a telecommunications link between spacecraft on the surface of Mars and Earth would meet the “directly to Mars sample return” threshold, but an orbiter devoted to scientific studies would not.  The amount of funding expected to be available for this less costly mission in 2018 or 2020 is about $700-800 million, which many believe will be sufficient only for an orbiter, not for a lander.    Yesterday, NASA Mars program manager Doug McCuisition and MPPG leader Figueroa briefed CAPS and stressed that the current probes in orbit around Mars that are serving as communications relays for Opportunity are getting old and need to be replaced if surface operations are to continue.  Squyres made the same point today.

Later, Squyres said that if Congress restores money to the planetary science account, it might even be possible to launch a Mars orbiter whose primary objective is telecommunications relay (though he did not rule out that it might have some science instruments), then a mission to Europa based on the descoping studies recently completed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), followed by a Mars sample return mission.

The Decadal Survey championed the science that would result from a mission to Europa, but an independent cost estimate pegged the mission’s cost at $4.7 billion, which the report said was unaffordable.    Last spring, JPL and APL began studies on how to reduce the scope and cost of a Europa mission and the FY2012 appropriations bill for NASA directed the agency to submit the report to Congress. 

CAPS also was briefed on the Europa study today.  JPL’s Robert Pappalardo and Tom Gavin said that it was submitted to NASA on May 1 and transmitted by the agency to Congress today.  They came up with three different options, one of which is called the Europa Clipper.  It would orbit Jupiter and “toe-dip” down towards Europa’s surface at least 32 times to collect data about that Jovian moon, which scientists believe has a large liquid ocean under an ice shell.  Liquid water is a sine qua non for life as we know it, hence the intense scientific interest in learning more about Europa’s ocean.  The Europa Clipper as currently conceived would cost $1.9 billion in FY2015 dollars excluding launch costs and have “low” risk and “excellent” science.    The other two missions that were evaluated were a Europa orbiter and a Europa lander.   A Europa orbiter would cost a little less, $1.6 billion, and be low risk, but have only “very good” science.   A Europa lander would cost much more, $2.8 billion, and be high risk, but have excellent science return.  Pappalardo and Gavin quoted NASA’s Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG) as concluding that “the strong majority view of the OPAG community” is that the Clipper mission is the best of the three options.

Separately, NASA’s Curt Niebur told CAPS that ESA has accepted NASA’s offer to participate as a minor partner in ESA’s new Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission.  NASA will contribute hardware to the mission for a life-cycle cost of $100 million.   JUICE includes two flybys of Europa, but not the detailed studies envisioned by Europa Clipper.

Squyres said that a $700-800 million Mars orbiter whose main purpose is telecommunications relay launched in 2018, followed by a $2 billion Europa mission, and then by Mars sample return “could work” if Congress restores money to planetary science as expected.  He added that the total cost for the Mars sample return mission is $9.6 billion, a number that “spooked” the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  “I haven’t heard OMB say it doesn’t like the science,” he said, “it’s the cost.” 

Later, however, in response to a question, he said he believes OMB pays “lip service” to the Decadal Survey and cares only about its own interpretation of what it says, especially in terms of the need to maintain programmatic balance.   He stressed that programmatic balance has two components — balance across the solar system and balance in terms of small, medium and large “flagship” missions.   Although the Decadal Survey did provide “decision rules” for what should happen if the budget turned out to be less than anticipated, Squyres pointed out that it recommended that flagship missions “be descoped or delayed, but not eliminated.”  

He also stressed the need for international cooperation in pursuing planetary exploration goals, pointing out the impressive capabilities that other countries already have, including Japan’s return of a sample from an asteroid.   He added that Congress also is enthusiastic about international cooperation, though China is an exception for some Members.

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