Who would have thought there were so many planetary scientists in the world? I don’t know how many are here in total, but I estimated that there were about 1100 in the room to hear about NASA’s priorities for future missions.
LPSC is the largest annual meeting of planetary scientists, meeting in Houston each March. The main item of interest today though was the Decadal Survey, presented by Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator of the highly successful Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It is important because this roadmap sets out the planetary exploration priorities for the next decade. Smaller Discovery class missions are not covered, they are prioritised during more timely Announcements of Opportunities. What everyone wanted to hear were the Flagship missions, the real leading missions that will define huge swaths of planetary science for the next decade and well beyond.
Listen to the presentation here http://www.livestream.com/2011lpsc
Squyres gave a masterly presentation and was resoundingly applauded at its conclusion for a job well done. He did cause laughter when, for reasons unknown but possibly connected with his finger and arrow keys on his laptop, the slides advanced rapidly in only a few seconds towards the end of his presentation, hence spilling the beans on what he had say.
Top of the list for a Flagship mission is Mars sample return and a Mars rover called Max C. Here a partnership with ESA and its ExoMars programme is essential. The mission will be designed around rovers finding and caching the most exciting rock samples (the ones most promising for holding signs of life or extinct life) and a future space craft landing and retrieving the samples and returning them to Earth. The sting in the tail however is that as presently projected, the mission at $3.5billion is way over any possible budget. The mission has to be de-scoped to about $2.5billion and if this can’t be achieved or if sample return is threatened, then this mission drops right down in priority and out of the running. As Squyres said, “there is no plan B” for Mars sample return.
Second in priority is JEO, Jupiter Europa orbiter. Europa is a moon of Jupiter which (almost certainly) a water ocean beneath its icy crust. Water and heat combine to give the exciting possibility of life. The problem with JEO however, is where Max C was way over budget, JEO is vastly over budget at $4.7billion. It will have to be redesigned and de-scoped to lop at least $2billion off its price tag.
Third in priority and possibly top if Max C and JEO fail their budget cuts is a Uranus orbiter and probe and fourth a Venus climate orbiter.
As if this wasn’t complicated enough, a newly proposed budget for NASA from the Office of Management and the Budget for Fiscal Year 2012 gives a sharply declining budget for this research, so killing all Flagship missions. As a commenter at the end at question time remarked, people need to lobby their congressmen and rise up like the people of Egypt to demand justice and what they want and de-scope the tens of billions of dollars used to subside bankers and not science.