The head of NASA’s planetary science division enthusiastically embraces most of the recommendations of the recent 10-year survey of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Praising the study as a whole, Lori Glaze nevertheless pointed out that the amount of money needed to run the program is far greater than what is in NASA’s current plan and that there are a few recommendations with which the NASA disagrees.
Glaze today chaired a virtual community town hall to present the agency’s initial response to the 781-page “Origins, Worlds, and Life: A 10-Year Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032.”
Decadal surveys are produced by the National Academies for each of NASA’s science disciplines – Astrophysics, Space Biological and Physical Research, Earth Science and Space Applications, Heliophysics (Solar and Space Physics), and Planetary Science – all 10 years, a decade. Written by committees of experts who volunteer their time, they represent a consensus on the major scientific questions that need to be addressed over the next decade and the missions to answer them.
It is the third in the series for planetary science and the first to include astrobiology and planetary defense as part of their charter.
Co-chaired by Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute and Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, the Decade’s top recommendation for the next flagship planetary science mission is to send an orbiter and probe to Uranus. In second place is a mission to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn thought to have an ocean of liquid water under an icy crust, similar to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
NASA is already building a spacecraft to visit Europa based on recommendations from the last decade of planetary science, published in 2011. Europa Clipper is scheduled for launch in 2024. It came second after a Mars Sample Return mission , which NASA is also developing for launch. later this decade.
And therein lies the problem. On the one hand, funding for NASA’s planetary science missions has never been stronger, but on the other hand, scientists are eager to explore ever more targets in the solar system and the amount of money is limit.
Glaze showed three graphs today comparing how much it would cost to execute everything the Decade recommended for the next 10 years, $41.120 billion, against the Decade’s estimate of a “flat” planetary science budget which assumes an inflationary increase of 2%, $34.990 billion, against NASA’s current five-year plan.
The top chart shows the funding needed for both Uranus and Enceladus, while the second only includes Uranus. Glaze said studies on how to run the Uranus Orbiter-Probe mission will begin no later than FY2024 with a possible launch in the early 2030s. As for Enceladus, those studies won’t begin until FY2026. .
“The short term is quite difficult,” Glaze said. “We have to keep in mind that the current planning budget that we have now is even lower than the level budget, so [I’m] just trying to set expectations. The Decade is “inspiring and we will continue to advocate for budgets to support the Inquiry’s ambitious goals. But just to get a bit of a reality check, we have to recognize that some of the “recommended activities” may not be achievable.
A wildcard in budget planning is the impact of the delay in launching Psyche, an exploration mission for an asteroid of that name. Psyche was supposed to launch roughly now, but in June, mission officials concluded they didn’t have enough time to validate the software. An independent review committee studies what went wrong and what is needed to ensure the success of the mission.
Glaze said today that a confirmation/termination review in November will determine Psyche’s fate, but assuming it moves forward, the money to fix the issue and cover the cost of the delay will have to come from somewhere. And that’s on top of the significant overruns of the Europa Clipper mission and the uncertainty over the cost of Mars Sample Return, which just underwent a major design change.
These Decadal Surveys are commissioned by NASA, and in recent years NASA has requested that the studies include “decision rules” for how NASA should deal with budget contingencies. Glaze called this Decade’s decision rules “incredibly useful” that she will use as a guide for years to come.
The flagship recommendations are just a small part of what the Decade covers – from specific research and analysis (R&A) assignments to state-of-the-art technology development and more.
Glaze said that as “exciting” as the Decade is, there are some points where the agency differs. For example, the Decade recommended that NASA develop scientific exploration strategies for various destinations in the solar system.
Glaze disagrees. Such strategies should come from the planetary science community itself, not from NASA. “We need these studies to come from the community through organizations such as the [NASA] evaluation groups or advisory committees and national academy councils and studies. The agency needs to balance its investments across the entire solar system, not around specific goals, she argues.
Glaze’s division is home to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and this is the first decadal survey to address this area. PDCO’s task is to locate and track asteroids and comets – near-Earth objects (NEOs) – that could threaten Earth and demonstrate technologies that could mitigate them. PDCO’s first flight project, DART, is set to impact a small asteroid next month to test a method of altering its trajectory.
Planetary defense has struggled to gain acceptance in the space science community because it’s not considered a “science” per se, but its inclusion in this decade-long study appears to be a game-changer. The Decade strongly supports NASA’s investment in planetary defense, particularly the NEO Surveyor mission, a space-based infrared telescope specifically designed to locate near-Earth objects. NASA offered to cut NEO Surveyor’s budget in the FY2023 request and delay the launch for at least two years, but the Decade calls for that to happen quickly.
PDCO Director Lindley Johnson pointed out at today’s meeting that the budget request was made before the Decade was published. “Now, seeing what the 10-year survey committee has said…we have important insight into what the community thinks” and that “leads us to seriously consider the FY2024 application. …This is an example of the impact that the ten-year survey can have.
Indeed, Glaze enthused that the “power” of previous decadal surveys could be visualized by comparing ongoing and planned planetary science programs a decade ago versus today.
“The reason why there are so many missions, and this is such an exciting time for planetary science, is due in large part to the power of our previous Decade surveys. And now that we have this new Decade in our hands, I just want to take a moment to dream and imagine where we’re going to be in 10 years. I think we have a lot of great opportunities ahead of us, and it’s going to be a fun race. — Lori Glaze
NASA’s official written response to the National Academies, the slides used in Glaze’s presentation, and the town hall meeting video are posted on NASA’s website.
Note: The slides in this article are all from Glaze’s presentation.