Where to Next? Decadal Survey Prioritizes Future Planetary Missions


The planetary science community has released their “Decadal Survey” a set of recommendations and a wish list of future missions to explore the solar system. But, as panel chair Steve Squyres said in his presentation of the survey at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on late Monday afternoon, NASA’s current budget projections could mean the end of large, flagship missions.

“The budget we had to work with is a projection by OMB (Office of Management and Budget) of what the future of planetary exploration might look like,” Squyres said. “If implemented, it would mean the end of flagships programs in planetary science. But this is not set in stone by any means. This budget is the first step in the process from the executive branch of the government. There are many more steps involving the other branches, and Congress is answerable to its constituents, and that includes us. So those of us who care have an obligation to speak to our representatives and let them know what missions we would like to see.”

The Decadal Survey, a lengthy 400-page document supported by NASA, the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, “transcends Congress and changes in administration and is our guiding light that moves us forward year after year, said Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Chief.

Squyres said the Decadal Survey is “an extraordinary event where a governmental entity looks toward its constituency for input and actually listens to them.”

In total, the committee – made up of planetary scientists — identified 25 mission candidates for detailed studies.

Flagship missions were recommended in the report, but with the caveat that if they can’t stay under a certain budget, those missions will either be delayed or canceled. And if NASA doesn’t have enough money or cannot stay within budget, the space agency should focus on smaller, cheaper missions first. These recommendations appear to be a direct result of the money issues of the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Science Laboratory Rover.

Among the highest recommendations for the big flagship missions are a double rover mission to Mars working in cooperation with the European Space Agency, sending NASA’s Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher (MAX-C) rover, (which could be a sample return mission) and ESA’s ExoMars Rover to the Red Planet which could both help determine whether the planet ever supported life and could also help answer questions about its geologic and climatic history. NASA’s part of that joint mission should not exceed $2.5 billion, which is actually $1 billion less than the independent estimates provided to the committee. However, the panel suggested that both space agencies work to make the missions cheaper by reducing the scope of the mission (and they provided a checklist of how to do that).

The second highest recommendation for the flagship missions is to study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and its subsurface ocean — one of the most promising environments in the solar system for supporting life. But again, NASA should fly the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) only if NASA’s budget for planetary science is increased, or if the JEO’s mission scope is made more affordable. The independent estimate put the price tag at $4.7 billion. The committee concluded that unless costs could be brought down, conducting JEO would preclude too many other important missions.

“De-scoping is a difficult thing,” Squyres said at the conclusion of his presentation. “It requires discipline, it requires leaving behind some of our most cherished hopes for what a mission might be.”

But Squyres reminded those in attendance of two famous de-scoped missions. One mission, originally called the Grand Tour ended up being cut because it was alltogether too large in scope and budget. It later became Voyager, and scientists later worked out a way to make the Grand Tour happen. The other mission was the VIRM mission to Venus, which was a radar and mapping mission to Venus, which was too expensive, and it was massively de-scoped to became the Magellan mission.

“Voyager and Magellan both revolutionized our understanding of five planets, so de-scoping — when done right — can lead to revolutionary missions,” Squyres said.

Other missions would be the first in-depth exploration of an ice giant plant – an orbiter to Uranus — and another to Saturn’s geyser-filled moon, Enceladus.

The Decadal Survey takes input from planetary scientists, and Squyres said the science community stressed the importance of smaller missions – known as New Frontier class missions — which would provide science quicker, cheaper and more frequently than the big flagship missions. Also, they said NASA should place high priority on research and development and technology funding.

Recommendations for New Frontiers missions for 2013-2022 include a Comet Surface Sample Return mission, and Io orbiter, a probe to deploy into Saturn’s atmosphere, a network of lunar landers and orbiters, and a Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return.

Squyres said the panel proceeded knowing their recommendations should be science-driven and but also that the missions would have to be maintainable within the projected budgetary resources. So, not just the science but the costs of the science.

“Science return per dollar — I understand science return is not highly definable in terms of cost,” Squyres said, which sometimes makes the projections difficult.

Other missions were recommend based on balance across the solar system and balance on mission size between the smaller and larger missions. Other criteria were the missions’ readiness of appropriate technologies, and availabilities of trajectories in the next 10 years — “You have to be able to get from here to there,” Squyres said.

They also recommended funding for current missions to continue or be extended including, MESSENGER, Dawn, Kepler, GRAIL, New Horizons, Juneo, Cassini, the current Mars missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory and MAVEN, and the LADEE lunar mission.

15 Replies to “Where to Next? Decadal Survey Prioritizes Future Planetary Missions”

  1. It’ll be a shame if all Europa-bound missions get cut. I want to know what that subsurface ocean looks like. They could use a nuclear reactor to slowly melt its way through the ice.

  2. We should go to the asteroids and survey the mineral wealth there. The money and the tech spinoofs from mining them will pave the way to Mars and beyond and provide the world with much needed resources.

  3. I think we also need to prioritize missions which will develop a workable gravity tug or variation, in the event we find a hazardous near Earth object that poses a threat. We’ll certainly learn a lot doing it and we may, in the process, save the lives of millions of people and possibly the human species.

  4. My take:
    We now know Enceladus would be the easier subsurface sample target one effort mission, so that is a redirect right there. The remaining reason to go to Europa would be to confirm global scale subsurface oceans, because it has other ramifications than the local Enceladus sea. That could also be a one off mission. (Unless it turns out that Enceladus sea is recent/temporary, in which case Europa would reenter as astrobiology target supreme alongside Mars and Titan.)

    The remaining reason to go to Jupiter is some “every 2nd time to Jup or Sap” suggestion. But instead we could scale up the Mars/Venus type of fleet network, next launch a Jupiter communication and perhaps camera platform. (The later could perhaps follow some of the dynamics in the system – on surfaces, clouds, what not – from a radiation safe, long time able, orbit envelope.) From that more expensive, directed, and simultaneous missions could be orchestrated.

    That would make Saturn the next planet to be incorporated in a growing but dynamic network, and so on and so forth. The network volume could follow the ebbs and flows of economy and politics, while focusing money on the expensive observations/questions.

    Now it would mean that people would have to enter and leave smaller scale missions instead of having a single bread winner. Would that be so bad, or different from other areas?

  5. Due to the GFC, the only serious interplanetary missions they should be considering is the moon. Good heavens. Just send a couple of simple cheap robotic rovers to the Moon, and let them running all over the place to explore to their heart’s content. This will keep NASA, and even the scientist and novices occupied for at least couple of years to a decade until the crisis is over, and then start thinking about other more ambitious missions that cost a lot more money to fund. (At least they would have some cheap pictures to propagate some enthusiasm for exploration. What you guys are talking about here is decades away. Perhaps by then nobody will have any interest for exploration because NASA has nothing to show.)
    Then NASA could put aside some money in the piggybank until they get their act together. (At the moment they can’t even launch into earth orbit an relatively inexpensive environmental satellite via Taurus rocket system, yet you guys want to explore the solar system again.)

    All I see is a bunch of mindless bureaucrats desperately trying to keep there cushy jobs for a few more years instead of being put out to pasture or retirement!

    Just be happy that the Horizon’s Pluto mission is still gonna happen in 2015! At least they can’t cancel that, now can they?

    IMO. Perhaps the only real exploring the US should be doing at the moment is to fix the mess that is the economy, and get is back on the road to sustainability!!

    1. And exactly how cutting the 18-billion NASA budget will help to get back on the road to sustainability?

      1. …make it 9-billion.

        Cutting all the government programs by 20%-50% across the board for a year or two and the government debt will at least be controllable. Defaulting isn’t an option here.

      2. Great Britain, for example, have already taken drastic action, and even though there are many public protests, their government realised what would happen if they didn’t.

      3. So you’re going to lay off half the engineers and scientists and then expect to pick them up again two years later? I don’t think that’s very workable.

      4. You maybe right, but the choice in the allocation of monies to projects is made by the President and the elected officials, and ultimately on the decision of a majority of Americans.
        Your main problem is limited by your budget, where your free spending money needs to be used more frugally to pay of the debt, and not instigate new directions or projects until you have your budget in control.
        Now of course you could blow the whole lot on your space program (or something else), but that will involve other projects being cut.
        Perhaps the monies in this case could be spent keeping all these guys working in the design phase for some future project, but spend little on exploration etc. till the economy is better suited or the cause.
        n the end, burying your head in the sand isn’t going to go away. It will take sacrifice and austerity for awhile, but it will be worth it in the end (besides the planets are not going anywhere are they?) The alternative is to let the economy crash due to defaulting on the loans, and see the country taken apart piecemeal in receivership. If that happens, you won’t be doing any projects at all!
        In the end, it is not me laying off people, it is essentially the economic circumstances that is doing it — regardless if it is workable solution or not.
        I’m not being anti-Amrican or defeatist here, I’m just trying to be realistic. Good luck!

  6. Correction: the original mission Magellan sprung from was the Venus Orbital Imaging Radar (VOIR) mission, not VIRM.

  7. True, The U.S. economy is in dire straits, but I don’t see how slashing the NASA budget by 20 or even 50 percent will make much of a difference when it only comprises less than 1% of the Federal budget. Ceasing our involvement in senseless Middle Eastern wars and cutting off aid to dictatorial nations seems a much better course of action.

  8. The only way the budget is going to get balanced and the national debt reigned in is some combination of raising the social security retirement age and/or reducing benefits. Medicare/medicaid is going to have to tweaked as well.

    Freezing and/or reducing the funding of other government agencies and their programs (while not a bad idea in some cases) is nothing more than propaganda.

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