Despite a significant budget increase from Congress for 2016, NASA’s planetary science program is grappling with a number of issues, some created by the same appropriations bill that provided the additional funding.
At a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) Jan. 27 in Monrovia, California, David Schurr, deputy director of NASA’s planetary science division, said the program is dealing with several issues, from the delay of a Mars mission to new congressional direction on a mission to Europa.
The good news for NASA’s planetary science program was the increase it received in the fiscal year 2016 omnibus spending bill passed in December. Congress provided $1.63 billion, an increase of $270 million over the administration’s request. “For planetary science, it was a very good appropriation,” Schurr said.
Days later, though, NASA announced it was delaying the launch of its next Mars mission, a lander called InSight, because of problems with a seismic instrument. Originally scheduled for launch this March, InSight will now launch no sooner than May 2018, assuming NASA decides to go ahead with the mission.
Schurr said a decision on what to do with InSight will be made “in the March timeframe,” including what that means for other planetary programs, such as future Discoveryclass planetary missions. NASA selected five Discovery proposals for additional study last September, and plans to select one, or possibly two, of them for development late this year.
“That will let us know what we’ve got available for Discovery selections,” he said of the InSight decision. “We recognize that there’s potentially implications of the InSight delay to our ability to select one or two missions in December.”
The implications come from the additional cost to InSight because of its launch delay. “Delaying it by a little over two years does not come for free,” Schurr said. He did not give an estimate of the cost, but later said the delay means a “high probability” it will exceed its cost cap of $675 million, including launch and operations.
NASA is also grappling with new direction from Congress in the spending bill regarding a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. The bill allocated $175 million for the mission, nearly six times the administration’s request of $30 million. However, it directed NASA to launch it no later than 2022 on the Space Launch System, and include a lander with the orbiter. NASA had been working on a launch in the mid-2020s for a mission that would orbit Jupiter and make multiple passes of Europa, but not included a lander.
“That’s a lot to try to get done,” Schurr said of the mission’s new requirements regarding the launch schedule and the addition of a lander. “In fact, those are probably mutually exclusive directions.”
He offered few details about the lander’s design, including how instruments for the spacecraft will be selected. While the main Europa spacecraft will be solar powered, he did not rule out using a nuclear power source for the lander.
Scientists at the meeting also questioned Schurr about the agency’s decision in early January to include an “Ocean Worlds” option for the next New Frontiers competition for a medium-sized planetary mission. That option would allow missions to Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, both thought to be potentially habitable.
Some people objected to the addition of the Ocean Worlds theme, arguing it circumvented the plans laid out in the most recent planetary science decadal survey. That report recommended several destinations for the next New Frontiers mission, which did not include Enceladus or Titan.
“We all support the decadal survey,” SBAG chair Nancy Chabot said at the meeting about the addition of Ocean Worlds to the New Frontiers competition. “So it’s really shocking to me that, all of a sudden, there’s something just inserted in there.”
Others asked if a mission to Enceladus or Titan could fit into the cost cap for a New Frontiers mission, which for the upcoming competition will be $850 million, excluding launch and operations. Other proposed New Frontiers destinations were studied during development of the decadal survey to ensure they were feasible within the cost cap.
“We have seen technically feasible missions at the Discovery-class level, which thus would lead one to believe that at the New Frontiers-class level you could do even better,” Schurr responded. He noted one of the finalists in the last Discovery competition, won by InSight, was Titan Mare Explorer, a probe to study that moon’s hydrocarbon lakes.
Schurr said NASA was trying to be responsive to the guidance to Congress on issues like Ocean Worlds and a Europa mission. “We do our best to meet that,” he said, “within the realities of physics and bureaucracy.”