Today’s Tidbits: March 19, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: March 19, 2018

Here are our tidbits for March 19, 2018:   NASA’s Jim Green — it’s our time in the sun; Jeff Bezos visits NRO; an unsung hero – the Deep Space Network.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

NASA’s Jim Green — It’s Our Time in the Sun

Jim Green, Director, Planetary Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA. Credit: NASA

At a NASA “town hall” meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) outside of Houston this evening, NASA’s Jim Green enthused about the FY2019 budget request for the Planetary Science Division, which he heads.  He excitedly told the audience of lunar and planetary scientists that the request is about a $400 million increase.  He used $1.8 billion as the amount he currently is spending. (Congress has not completed action on the FY2018 request yet; NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution.)  The FY2019 request is $2.235 billion.

In addition to a wide range of ongoing NASA planetary science missions, the request includes two new initiatives:  a $218 million per year program for the next 5 years to contract with commercial companies that want to build small lunar landers as part of the Trump Administration’s goal of returning humans to the surface of the Moon; and a plus up to NASA’s planetary defense budget from $60 million to $150 million per year for the next 5 years.  The increase to the planetary defense budget will initially fund the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) where a spacecraft will impact the 150-meter diameter moon of the asteroid Didymos to determine if it can alter the moon’s trajectory.  It is one technique under study to determine whether it would be possible to deflect an asteroid headed toward Earth.  In the future, the money might be spent to build a space-based infrared telescope to search for Earth-threatening asteroids. NASA has been studying such a mission, NEOCam, for several years, but has not had the funds to proceed.

One would think that would be all good news, but one audience member demanded to know where the extra $400 million came from, noting that other science programs at NASA and throughout the government did not fare as well.  Green emphatically pointed out that the planetary science budget suffered its own cuts in the past.  “Many of us lived through really austere times…. It’s now our time in the Sun to shine.  Let’s do that.”

(The questioner replied that NASA’s Space Grant program, which the Trump Administration wants to eliminate along with NASA’s other education programs, made his career possible and also deserved funding.)

Green did not discuss the fact that although the two new initiatives are level-funded through the 5-year runout, the overall planetary science budget is projected to decline from the $2.235 billion requested for FY2019 to $2.143 billion by FY2023. The buying power of that money will be eroded by inflation as well.  For FY2019, however, the request for planetary science is definitely quite a boon.

Whether Congress agrees with that figure and how NASA wants to spend it remains to be seen, of course.  The request does not fund the Europa Clipper mission on the schedule required by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He wrote into law that Europa Clipper must be launched in 2022 on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).  The budget request funds the Clipper mission for launch in 2025 and on a commercial rocket, not SLS.   Culberson also required in law that NASA build a Europa lander and launch it in 2024 on SLS.  The budget does not fund that project at all.

Jeff Bezos Visits NRO

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos visited the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) last week.  NRO designs, builds, launches, and operates the nation’s spy satellites and it rarely reveals who is stopping by, but in this case it issued five tweets about the Bezos visit.  Bezos, the billionaire founder of and owner of the Washington Post, is building reusable rockets including New Glenn that might be used to launch NRO satellites.  Based on the tweets, however, the discussion apparently was as much about innovation and risk as markets.

The Deep Space Network — An Unsung Hero

While ooohing and aaahing over the spectacular images that come back from spacecraft traveling throughout the solar system, how many people stop and wonder how exactly the images get from there to here?  Few, probably.

It would not be possible without NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a set of massive antennas in California, Spain and Australia. The network has gone through many upgrades over the past 54 years, but is “worn out” as  Shannon Stirone writes in “Welcome to the Center of the Universe.”  []

Her article is published on “LONGREADS,” a website devoted to nonfiction and fiction storytelling and it does indeed read like a story, not a technical piece.  The website conveniently lists the length of time it will take to read it:  22 minutes.

If you’re curious about how the data and images make it to Earth and what it will take to keep ’em coming, it’s well worth the time.

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