October 20, 2017

10.03.11: A Planetary Exploration Wish List.

What extra cool orbiters or landers would you like to see funded? Earlier this week, the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board unveiled its exhaustive 400 page report that outlines a vision for unmanned space exploration of the solar system from 2013 through 2022. This was presented at the ongoing Lunar & Planetary Science Conference, and as suspected there were big winners, a few potential losers, and a lot of maybes that have to whittle down their budget-busting prices a bit.

All of this comes on the heels of an ever-tightening US budget that will no doubt hit NASA and solar system exploration hard. Yes, unmanned space exploration is actually getting an 11% boost in 2012 up to $1.54 billion, but expect that to trickle off to $1.25 billion, or well below the current budget in 2016. Keep in mind, a much leaner 2012 budget may mean the very real possibility that NASA does not enjoy a promised 6 billion dollar 5 year run out.

So, who are the main contenders? NASA flies three basic sort of missions; small budget Discovery style missions, mid-range New Frontiers class missions, and high end, “Battlestar Galactica”-style Flagship Missions. As always, the pull essentially boils down to the old mantra of “do we want to do a lot with a little, or a little with a lot?”

For the most part, the budget constraints don’t substantially impact the Discovery Class missions, which are the bulwark of space exploration and are generally classified as missions such as Mercury Messenger which have a price tag of less than 500 million. Some of the Discovery proposed missions are a Saturn orbiter and atmospheric probe (think Galileo, but Saturn instead of Jupiter) a mission to the Trojan asteroids, a Venus lander, and a comet and/or lunar polar lander sample return. These are all potential low cost-big bang missions, although we see a potential for overruns in such a complex mission as a Venus lander.

New Frontier missions are a wild card. Current definitions of these included a budget cap of $1.05 billion in FY2015 dollars, and the panel recommended tweaking this cap to $1.0 billion which excludes launch vehicle costs. The toughest part of getting a mission out there is escaping the gravity well of the Earth in the first place… some ideas to surmount this include dual payload launches and perhaps hitching a ride with international payloads. Contrast this with the early 70’s “why launch one when you can send two for twice the price” mentality, and you can sort of see the writing that’s on the wall for many of these missions.

The Flagship missions are where the budget runs into real trouble. Main proposals include a Mars sample return, an Enceladus Orbiter, a dedicated Uranus Mission and a Europa Orbiter with perhaps a lander. The MAX-C Mars sample return and the Europa Mission are real budget busters; it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do both; and even one will probably be trimmed down substantially. It seems like a shame to go to Europa and not send a lander; NASA could take a cue from the successful Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan in this regard.

It’s also interesting to note that current technology development missions are also under recommendation, such as dedicated Titan and Neptune missions farther out. True, it’s tough to predict what the political & technological landscape will be in 2022 and beyond… what was on your desktop in 1999?

Woven into the report were to other interesting tidbits we’d like to bring to the fore. Namely the current stockpile of Plutonium-238 dedicated to deep space exploration is dwindling. This is required as a power source in the outer solar system where a dimmer sun means that solar energy is not really an option for power. Other sources, such as Thorium or perhaps tapping the nuclear weapons stockpile will have to be found. Also, a priority must be placed on updating the aging deep space network, as it’s crucial to our exploration infrastructure. Sites like Goldstone and Arecibo have been on the chopping block before, and a loss of these assets could mean no more deep space missions.

So, there you have it. One blogging pundits highly biased take on the report. There are some breath-taking missions on the drawing boards, and the task will now fall on administrators to decide what’s feasible. We probably won’t truly know until the 2012 budget gets past Congress, which itself is struggling to remain open for business; will 2010-20 be a Golden Age for space exploration, or a dark age?



  1. Richard Greenberg says:

    Your analysis of the NRC decadal plan is very well done. Thanks for the clear summary and analysis. For more on Europa, see my book “Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter’s Ocean Moon.” Also, I have a policy piece on Europa exploration, emphasizing a similar point to yours about a Europa lander, coming out soon in the journal Astrobiology (March issue). Keep up the great blog!

  2. David Dickinson says:

    Thanks; will hunt down Unmasking Europa as its just the kind of book we’re always looking to review! Thanks for posting!


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