Saturday, March 15, 2014

2015 Planetary Science Proposed Budget – Steady as she goes and then big changes

The President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget details were released this week.  For the next several years, the budget proposes a steady as she goes plan (but with two “what are they thinking?” surprises).  Then as the current missions in development head to the launch pad, the budget suggests major changes that would dramatically remake the mix of missions that would launch in the next decade.

The broad outlines of the proposed NASA budget have been widely reported.  I’ve gone through the proposed budget and found a move to a very different mix of missions that I haven’t seen reported elsewhere.  To start with the big picture, here are the highlights:

Status quo for missions in flight or under development except that the Mars Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions could end on September 30. 
NASA is recommitting to a vigorous Discovery mission program, but its plans for filling out the rest of its mission portfolio leading into the next decade are unknown. 
Selection of future New Frontiers missions is suspended indefinitely. 
While the Administration finally includes some money to consider options for a budget Europa mission, it’s a one shot affair with no mission development expected until the 2020s.

The President’s budget generally proposes little change in NASA’s science programs for the rest of the decade.  A $65M cut is proposed for the Planetary Science program for FY15, which equals the change in the amount proposed for studying a mission to Europa from FY14.  Solid lines are actual spending, dashed lines projected spending.

Before we look at the details, I’ll provide some background information on the budgeting process.
  1. The President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) annually prepares a budget proposal for the next year.  The proposal contains two sets of numbers: the proposed spending for the next fiscal year (October 1 to September 30) and a notional budget for the following four years (through FY19 in this proposal) that agency managers use to plan multiyear programs.
  2. Each house of Congress then passes its own version of the budget, which are reconciled between the two.  The President must sign the congressionally approved budget for it to become law, giving OMB significant negotiating power with Congress.
  3. The final signed budget law will expire on September 30, 2015.  NASA’s managers must spend to match the budget (with some wiggle room) for that fiscal year.   However, they cannot start any multi-year program that isn’t also shown in the President’s out year notional budget.

To understand the impact of the budget on future planetary exploration (the focus of this blog), I've learned to look at three sets of numbers: Funding for missions in flight, funding for missions in development, and funding to start development of future missions.

Funding for missions in flight

Proposed funding for missions in flight (or in the case of GRAIL, just completed).  The budget for operating the Cassini mission isn’t reported separately, and the figures shown are approximate.

The President’s budget proposes to fund all missions in flight with two exceptions.  The first key change in this budget from last year is that the new proposal includes full funding for the Cassini orbiter at Saturn through the planned end of its mission (and fuel) in 2017.  This would mean that the final orbits close to the rings and atmosphere will occur.  As recently as last summer, funding for the Cassini mission past 2015 was in doubt.

Other missions are either funded throughout the five year budget projection (the Curiosity rover, for example), until their expected end of life (the MESSENGER Mercury orbiter), or until the end of their originally planned missions when they will be eligible to justify further funding for extended missions (New Horizons).

The other key change to this portion of the budget, however, is the proposal for premature termination of the Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.  Both missions are producing good science, and the budget document doesn’t explain why funding isn’t proposed.  In addition to the main budget, the President proposed a supplemental budget enhancement that would be funded through new taxes that would fund both of these missions (among many other programs).  This supplement is given no chance of passage by the current Congress.  Continuing these two missions, then, depends on Congress adding funds to support them in next year’s budget (quite possibly taken from elsewhere in NASA’s budget since NASA’s total budget is unlikely to change much under the two year budget compromise worked out last year by the two political parties).

Proposing to not continue funding the popular and still very productive Opportunity rover is one of the two, “I can’t imagine what they were thinking,” lines in the budget.  I hope that Congress will overturn this.  (I also disagree with not continuing the Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter which is still producing good science, but it doesn’t have the popular following of Opportunity.)

Funding for missions in development

The budget would fully fund development of the three approved NASA missions in development.  Funding is proposed to continue evaluating options for a possible Europa mission that may be developed in the 2020s and for future Discovery program missions.  Solid lines are approved missions, dashed line are funding for expected future missions.

The proposed budget would also fully fund the planetary missions that NASA has in development: the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return, the InSight Mars geophysical station, and the 2020 Mars rover mission.  Funding is also included for NASA’s contributions to the European Space Agency’s Bepi-Colombo Mercury orbiter, the 2016 ExoMars orbiter and 2018 rover, and the JUICE Jupiter-Ganymede orbiter.

Funding to start development of future missions

By the end of the decade, NASA would be completing development of the Mars 2020 rover and developing new Discovery-program missions.  No new missions in the New Frontiers or Outer Planets programs are foreseen in the budget for the rest of this decade.  Solid lines are actual spending, dashed lines projected spending.

By funding most missions in flight and continuing development of missions already approved, the budget is largely status quo.  The radical changes to NASA’s program would come for the missions that will follow these.

NASA’s mission strategy has been to fly a mixture of mission that fall into different cost classes.  Some scientific priorities require expensive, highly capable spacecraft, such as the 2020 Mars rover in development.  NASA refers to these missions as Flagships that would cost $1.5B to $2.5B.  (More expensive Flagship missions were flown in the past.)  Flagship missions would do the difficult, high priority studies that simply can’t be done more cheaply.   The expectation has been that one or two Flagship missions would be developed per decade, with missions to Europa and Uranus (in that order) having the highest priority. 

NASA has a second mission class for high priority studies that can be done more cheaply ($700M to $1B), known as the New Frontiers program.   In the past, this program was used to develop the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to Pluto, the Juno orbiter en route to study the interior of Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx  asteroid sample return mission that is in development.  For the future, the scientific community has prioritized a Venus lander, a Saturn atmospheric probe, a Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous, a comet surface sample return, and a Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin sample return for this program.   The expectation had been that New Frontiers missions would be selected every five to seven years.  As recently as last summer, NASA was planning to select the fourth mission in the series in the next year or two. 

Discovery program missions cost approximately $450M and are competitively chosen from proposals submitted by scientific teams to study any solar system body except the sun and Earth.  (NASA has other programs to study those two bodies.)  NASA originally selected Discovery missions every two years, but that has been stretched to every five years recently.

The new budget proposal would radically shift the mixture of mission classes for the future.  The budget for the Discovery program would be ramped up to a level that would again allow selection of missions every two years.  (In a past meeting, Jim Green, head of NASA’s Planetary Science program, has said that a budget of ~$350M would support starting a Discovery mission every two years.)  However, the budget states that after the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission, the budget for the budget for the New Frontiers program drops to near zero and no money is foreseen up to 2019 to develop future missions.  (It is silent about whether New Frontiers missions might be selected after that.)

The proposed budget also doesn’t foresee any new Flagship missions to be started before 2019 and looks to see if the highest priority future Flagship mission could be descoped to the equivalent of a New Frontiers mission.  The approach proposed in the budget is the second case where I am left scratching my head wondering what the thinking is.   Thanks to generous funding added by Congress in the last two budgets, NASA has extensively studied a ~$2B proposed mission called the Europa Clipper.  For the FY15 budget, NASA proposes to spend $15M (a substantial cut from last year’s $80M inserted into the budget by Congress for Europa mission studies) to assess the potential for a $1B Europa mission.  Testing different cost points to learn what each could provide is a smart management move.  What doesn’t make sense is that the budget proposes to spend $15M next year, and then nothing for a Europa mission until possibly sometime in the 2020s.  The engineers who will study the descoped mission will have moved on to other projects or retired; technologies available today will be obsolete.  So why bother? 

While Congress has strongly supported doing a Europa mission earlier than the 2020s, it can’t force the formal start of development on a new mission.  Congressional budgets expire every September 30th.  To start development on a new mission, NASA needs both for its budget to show proposed budgets in future years to complete the development and for Congress to appropriate the funds for that development each year.  Under the proposed budget, we would have one more year of studies and then nothing for perhaps another decade. 

This budget proposal presents almost no vision for NASA’s planetary program following the completion of the missions currently in development.  No money would be spent to prepare for a Flagship mission to launch in the 2020s.  The Outer Planets program shrinks to near zero, and the same for the New Frontiers program.  In the proposed budget, the only firm plan for the following decade appears to be a robust program of Discovery missions, but that alone isn’t enough for a robust planetary science program.

Unless the Planetary Science budget suffers a severe cut at the turn of the next decade, funds should be available for a relatively rich program.  By my back of the envelope calculations, continuing the current budget (with inflation adjustments) would support development of the $2B Europa Clipper, a New Frontiers mission, and five Discovery missions in the 2020s.  Alternatively, NASA could fund three New Frontiers-class missions (including perhaps, a budget Europa mission) and five Discovery missions.  However, preparing to fly these missions requires funding in advance of mission selection to have robust programs ready.

My take is that the new budget proposal is an interim document when it comes to preparing for the next decade’s missions.  The President’s budget managers have placed a low priority on planetary science compared to other NASA programs, and the program’s budget has suffered substantial cuts as a result.  This is the first budget proposal in several years that shows essentially flat spending into the future instead of new cuts.  NASA’s managers likely are revamping their expectations for the planetary program given the new budget realities.  We haven’t heard (and NASA may well not know) what mission portfolio it plans to support in the future within that reality.

The proposed FY15 budget is the first in several years that doesn’t propose substantial cuts in future years compared to the previous year’s budget.  Lines for each fiscal year show what spending was expected in that budget for the next five years.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Boundaries for the Next Discovery Mission Selection

In my post a couple of weeks ago on the selection of NASA’s next low cost planetary mission, I said that the conditions NASA imposed on scientists proposing missions would determine much of what kind of missions scientists could impose.

Yesterday, NASA released a preview for the next competition.  There are some important innovations and a major limitation.

NASA will accept proposals to study any solar system body except the sun and the Earth.  Scientists cannot propose missions to study planetary systems around other stars (NASA astrophysics program funds these missions.)

NASA announced that the budget for the spacecraft, instruments, and data analysis (the Principal Investigator (PI) budget) would be $450M (FY15 dollars).   This is a small increase from the last competition’s PI budget of $425M, and by itself would not keep up with inflation. 

Outside of the PI’s budget, NASA will pay for the cost of the mission launch.  For the first time, NASA will pay for the cost of the mission’s operation outside of the PI budget.  In past competitions, missions with long flight times, and hence high operations costs, were at a disadvantage to missions with low operations costs.  This appears to be an effort to equalize operations costs.  Missions that would benefit are any with flight times of several years compared to the weeks or months to reach Venus, the moon, or Mars.  With operations costs not counted against the PI’s budget, the new competition probably keeps up with inflation compared to the previous competition.  (NASA’s announcement does emphasize that the operations costs projected for a mission must be ‘reasonable’.)

The major limitation for this competition is that NASA will not provide a radioisotope power system for this competition.  While recent NASA presentations suggests it has sufficient plutonium-238 fuel to support a Discovery mission, that fuel could not be prepared in time to meet the expect launch date for this competition.  As a result, any mission that cannot use solar power is effectively eliminated.  This would include missions beyond Jupiter, to the permanently shadowed lunar polar craters, or where large solar panels just won’t work like for a mission that would make multiple landings on a comet (see this description of the CHOPPER mission proposed for the last competition).

NASA traditionally offers scientists various technologies at the space agency’s cost that it would like to see tested in space.  For this competition, NASA says it is considering providing a version of the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion propulsion engine as well as heat shield technology for missions that would send a probe into planetary atmosphere.  These former would benefit missions that would require large amounts of thrust such as main belt asteroid missions or comet rendezvous missions.  The latter would benefit missions such as Venus atmospheric probes.

NASA also is considering requiring proposals to include carrying its Deep Space Laser Communications (DSLO) package.  This technology was tested on the LADEE mission currently orbiting the moon and showed that lasers could return much larger volumes of data than traditional radio systems.  NASA would now like to try this technology from a spacecraft in deep space.  Missions with low data rates such as Venus atmospheric probes probably would see little benefit from the DSLO system.  Missions with lots of imaging data such as Venus radar mappers or Io multi-flyby missions would make good use of the DSLO system.

One other new requirement is a limitation on how much of the cost of instruments foreign space agencies can contribute.  NASA has had a limitation that foreign governments could not contribute more than one-third the cost of the total mission.  That cap now also applies to the contribution to the cost of the science payload, too.  This appears to be a way of preventing a proposal team from minimizing its PI costs by filling most of the payload with instruments paid for by other governments.  NASA apparently wants US planetary missions to provide opportunities for US scientists to fly their instruments.

All in all, this looks to be a nice opportunity that keeps the Discovery program on track to continue to support innovative missions to a variety of destinations in the solar system.

Key dates (subject to change)

May 2014 – release of draft Announcement of Opportunity with details for proposers

September 2014 – release of final Announcement of Opportunity

December 2014 – proposals due

May 2105 – selection of two to three finalists for further study

October 2016 – selection of winning mission

December 2021 – launch by this date

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mission to a Metallic World: A Discovery Proposal to Fly to the Asteroid Psyche

Imagine flying deep within the asteroid belt to study the most unreachable location in the solar system: the deep core of a terrestrial world.

That will be one asteroid mission that will be proposed for NASA’s upcoming competition to select its next Discovery mission to explore the solar system.

We know nothing about what the geology of metal world would be like.  Could the impact crater look like frozen splats?  Credit: JPL/Corby Waste

Asteroids are found scattered across the solar system like artifacts strewn across an archaeological site.  Just as a delicate gold necklace and simple rough potsherd can speak the different strata of an ancient society, the many types of asteroids speak of the strata of conditions in the earliest eon of the solar system.  Stony bodies, for example, formed closer to the sun while icy bodies formed further away. 

By studying asteroids (and their cousins, the comets), scientists can study the remains of conditions from the earliest solar system. 

Most asteroids are smallish affairs with diameters measured in meters to kilometers or at most a few tens of kilometers and are usually chips knocked from larger protoplanets by impacts from still other asteroids.  In a few cases, though, the original protoplanets remain largely intact.  By studying these worlds with spacecraft, geologists can examine how the terrestrial planets formed.  On the true planets, that early history is long lost because of geologic activity.

Some of the protoplanets have a familiar structure like Vesta with its rocky mantle and metallic core that resembles the structure of the terrestrial planets.  Others are unlike any world we have explored to date.  Massive Ceres is a rock-ice world with a deep mantle of ice and is a member of a family of asteroids that emit water vapor (some are even comet like with full dust and ice vapor trails).  The asteroid Psyche is a metal world that may be the remnant core of protoplanet. 

(When I first began reading about the solar system several decades ago, comets were icy balls with some dust and asteroids were rocky.  Now we know that comets and asteroids are a continuum and many asteroids contain substantial amounts of ice that would have been water when these bodies still retained the heat form their formation.) 

Asteroids have been popular targets for solar system missions.  NASA has flown two asteroid missions and is building a third with a fourth listed as high priority.  Japan’s JAXA space agency has flown one mission, is building a second, and is planning for a third.  American and European scientists have proposed numerous additional missions.  In the last competition for NASA’s low-cost Discovery program (~$425M missions), over a quarter of the 28 missions proposed would have flown to an asteroid or observed them with a space telescope.

In the competition for the next Discovery mission expected to begin this year, we can expect a similar enthusiasm from the scientific community.  A good portion of the proposals will probably be to fly to one or more of the small asteroids whose orbits are near the Earth’s.  Flights to these worlds are relatively easy, making the missions that orbit them and even land budget bargains and low risk.  In addition, collisions, gravitational influences of the true planets (especially Jupiter), and even the pressure of the sun’s light have scattered the smaller asteroids across the solar system. Within easy reach from Earth are bodies representing a plethora of conditions that were found across the early solar system. 

Scientists who want to study protoplanets have to look to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.   There the Discovery Dawn spacecraft has finished its studies of the rocky protoplanet Vesta and is headed towards the rock-ice dwarf planet Ceres.

While the Dawn mission picked off two of the most exciting protoplanets, there are plenty more.  European scientists in their last mission competition proposed two main belt asteroid missions (neither selected).    They focused on two classes of asteroids.  The first were asteroids that have been observed to eject jets of water vapor.  The second class was actually a single asteroid – the metal world Psyche.

Scientists planning to propose Discovery missions usually are reluctant to say much about their ideas.  The competition is tough and missions usually are proposed several times.  Why say something that would give a competing team a good idea?  So of the eight asteroid Discovery missions proposed last time, we know very little about what was actually proposed.

Even with the stiff competition, though, some scientists try to build support for their proposals by making some disclosures in public.  It can’t hurt to have the members of the review panels already excited by a mission before they evaluate the proposal.  In general, we hear more about how scientifically interesting a destination is (those facts are widely known) and less about the spacecraft and instruments (what I know many of the readers of this blog are most interested in).  The few times we hear about detailed implementation, it generally is to a destination that seems beyond the reach of a Discovery-class mission where building technical credibility before the review likely helps.  All three of the teams that have proposed missions to the Saturn system, for example, have revealed a fair amount about the implementation.

The team preparing to propose a mission to the metal world Psyche has been relatively open about their proposal although they talk more about the destination than their spacecraft and instruments.

The asteroid Psyche is one of the larger asteroids.  Credit: Lindy T. Elkins-Tanton

Fortunately, the destination is worth learning about.  Stop for a second and ask yourself – what location for all the planets do we know least about?

It’s the cores of the planets.  We can infer much about the size of the cores from seismic data (so far available only for the Earth and the moon but soon also for Mars), gravitational studies that reveal the mass of the core, and measurements of the magnetic field when present.  No one, though, has ever seen a planetary core or directly measured its composition.

The asteroid Psyche may give us that opportunity.  As bodies coalesced in the early solar system, initially random chance brought dust and ice to clump together.  Once a body reach a kilometer or more in diameter (what is called a planetesimal), its gravity became strong enough to pull more material in to it.  At a critical size, the heat from radioactive elements, collisions, and gravitational pressure melted the interiors of these worlds and they became protoplanets. Iron and nickel metals sank to the cores, mantles formed from the lighter silicate materials or ices, and a crust may have formed of either unmelted primitive materials, or by volcanism from the interior flooding the surface. 

Three possible origins have been suggested for the metallic asteroid Psyche (~250 km diameter), all of them intriguing.

Psyche could be an asteroid in which repeated collisions chipped off the crust and mantle, leaving the core a naked body.  If this is the case, then a mission to this world would be the equivalent to a mission deep below the surface of any of the terrestrial planets to examine their cores.  It’s a journey that is possible only because chance created and then preserved from ultimate destruction by further collisions Psyche’s naked core. 

Psyche could be the remnant of the collision of two protoplanets that shattered and expelled the core of the smaller body to become Psyche.  In this case, we wouldn’t get to examine an intact protoplanet’s core.  We’d still get to examine the composition of a protoplanet’s core, though, and also see how a world composed almost purely of metal formed itself following a collision.  Collisions such as this would be been common in the early solar system.  One is believed to have created the Earth-moon system. All planetary cores, in fact, almost certainly formed from multiple generations of fragmentation, differentiation, and merging of previous cores.

And finally, Psyche could have formed so close to the early sun that all materials other than metals (and some silicates) would have been evaporated and have been unavailable for planet building.  Later migrations of Jupiter and Saturn in and out of the inner solar system could have moved this world to its present location in the asteroid belt.  In this case, a mission to Psyche would show us an entirely new class of world.

Telescopic observations reveal that Psyche’s surface is 90% metallic and 10% silicate rock.  A spacecraft orbiting Psyche likely could distinguish between these scenarios by measuring the composition in detail and looking at the arrangement of the silicate material.  If the silicate material is primarily high-magnesian pyroxene or olivine, then these silicates are likely the remnants of a crystallizing magma ocean, and indicate that Psyche started as a differentiated planetesimal and had its mantle stripped, validating the mission’s prime hypothesis for this body. If the silicates are all primitive chondritic material, then they were likely added as later impacts, and Psyche may have started life as a highly reduced metallic body without a significant silicate mantle, or, the nature of impact flux and its consequences are far more significant than our current models indicate. The numbers and shapes of craters on Psyche’s surface may help decipher that story.

Here are some of the key questions a spacecraft would explore at Psyche:  How did this large metal world form?  If it is a remnant core, what is the composition and structure of a terrestrial world’s core?  If Psyche was once molten, did it solidify from the inside out, or the outside in?  We have a number of meteorites from a single metallic asteroid (the group IVA iron meteorites); is Psyche their source?  The metallic asteroids appear to be much less dense than the metallic meteorites; are these asteroids rubble piles? 

We know a great deal about the geology and surface features of rocky worlds, icy worlds, and will learn about rock-ice worlds when the Dawn spacecraft reaches Ceres next year. Metal worlds may differ significantly in their appearance. What does the surface of a metal world look like?  Imagine how strange a crater might appear. Laboratory tests of craters in metal show that sometimes the ejecta flaps freeze before they fall; could this happen on a planetesimal?

Like the Dawn spacecraft, the Psyche spacecraft would use solar electric propulsion.  As for instruments, the proposal team’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Lindy T. Elkins-Tanton of the Carnegie Institution for Science,  told me, “We hope to learn not just about the surface of this metal body, but also about its interior, which requires geophysics. We'll be carrying a magnetometer, and we'll use the spacecraft itself to develop a detailed model of the body's gravity field. With these measurements and knowledge of topography, we'll get information on internal structure.

“We'll have an imager, of course, in the hopes of seeing some unforeseen new metal geology, and to count craters to measure the age of the surface, among other goals. Measuring the surface compositions of a metal object remotely is more difficult. Infrared spectrometers are great for silicates, but only gamma ray spectrometers can measure metal composition. We expect, though, to see some silicate materials along with the metals.”

I asked Dr. Elkins-Tanton about the possibility of flying to a second asteroid.  She told me that they looked at this and concluded that it wasn’t feasible.  No other asteroid visit would address their questions about metallic asteroids (and the instrument suite that would be wanted for a comet-like asteroid, for example, would be different).  It also would be difficult to fit second asteroid visit into a Discovery mission budget.

In my previous post, I wrote that Discovery mission competitions surprise and delight us with the cleverness of the missions proposed.  While we will hear little about many of the missions likely to be proposed for the asteroids, the Psyche mission gives an idea of what is possible.

You can read a two page summary of the science goals for the Psyche mission at this link.

My thanks to Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton for reading a draft of this post and making several useful suggestions.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Discovery Next

The Discovery program is unique in NASA’s planetary program.  Within the budget constraints of each selection, the scientific community is free to propose any mission to any destination.  In the last selection, the finalists were the Insight Mars geophysical station (which was selected), a mission to land on the lakes of Titan (TiME), and a mission to orbit and repeatedly land on the nucleus of a comet (CHOPPER).   To paraphrase Forest Gump, the Discovery program is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.  The creativity of the scientific community has given us a wide assortment of missions in the past and is likely to surprise and delight us again.

The missions of the Discovery program have visited a wide-range of solar system destinations.  Image from Historic Spacecraft and used under a creative commons license. 

A month so or so ago, it appeared that the selection of NASA’s next mission in this, its lowest cost planetary mission program, was on indefinite hold.  This program in its first decade produced an incredible wealth of missions of ten missions that studied Mercury, the moon, Mars, asteroids, comets, and the sun.  The program more than fulfilled its goal of ensuring that NASA’s planetary mission portfolio was diversified.

In the second decade, though, just two missions were approved, to the moon and Mars.  For the next decade it was uncertain when the next mission selection would begin.  It appeared that already approved missions in development would consume most of the foreseeable mission development budget. 

That has changed with the NASA budget that was just approved.  Congress directed NASA to accelerate the selection of the next, thirteenth Discovery mission.  Based on the proposals from the last Discovery mission (see list at the end), we can expect a good deal of creativity from the scientific community.

By contrast, the New Frontiers program ($750M to $1B missions) has a list of pre-selected, high priority missions (although creative solutions can be proposed).  The other class of missions, Flagship missions ($1.5B+) like Cassini or Curiosity, are selected by panels of scientists and fostered and developed over a decade or two.  The next two likely missions in this class, the 2020 Mars rover (already approved) and a Europa multi-flyby spacecraft (in study), are well known.

Realistically, there will be limits to the missions that can be proposed for the next Discovery mission.  NASA’s managers will have to decide on the budget they can afford for the mission.  In the past, scientists could propose missions with a total cost of ~$425M for the spacecraft, its operation, and the data analysis.  (NASA paid for the cost of the launch and some other expenses separately.)  Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary program, said in a meeting recently that the budget will decide how ambitious missions could be.  To afford a mission to the outer solar system, the budget would need to be closer to $500M, but a smaller budget could be set for missions to the moon, Venus, or Mars.

There also will be other key programmatic decisions.  Will NASA pick up the costs of providing a plutonium power system to enable missions that can’t use solar panels for power such as spacecraft that would travel to Saturn, the permanently shadowed craters of the moon, or land repeatedly on a comet?  The latest count of available plutonium power systems suggests that one will be available for either a Discovery or a New Frontiers mission this decade.

A fixed budget also puts missions with long flights to their destinations at a disadvantage compared to missions that go to worlds next door.  Each year of flight to reach a destination costs the mission $7M to $10M, a big disadvantage if the voyage takes five to seven years.  The scientific community has proposed that NASA allow the budget to be flexible to cover costs of long flights.

Then there’s a question of how much risk NASA is willing to accept.  The more ambitious the proposal, the greater the chance it would bust its development budget or fail sometime after launch.  Commentators have said that NASA appears to have become risk adverse in its Discovery mission selections (see here).  On the other hand, where NASA once had the budget to select two missions every two years, it now is looking at perhaps just two Discovery missions a decade.  The relative cost of failure has grown, and low-risk, good-science missions have been available to select.

We will get answers to most of these questions (except the tolerance for risk) in a few months when NASA releases the draft Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for the next selection.  AO’s spell out what NASA is looking for, the budget it has set, the class of launch vehicles it will pay for, and what resources it will make available such as a plutonium power supply.  Proposers will decide to propose or not in response to the constraints placed on the selection.

Congress asked that the AO be released this May, but NASA’s managers have said that they and the scientific community couldn’t be ready by that date.  Instead, a draft AO will come out for the community to comment on in the next few months.  NASA has said that the final AO will be released before next October.

Once the final AO is released, we will still need patience to wait to find out which mission is selected and even longer to see it reach its destination.   The previous AO was released in June 2010, the three finalists were selected in May 2011, the winning InSight mission was selected in August 2012, and launch will come in 2016.  If the next selection follows the same pace and the AO is released in, say, September 2014, the finalists may be known in August 2015, the winner selected in November 2016, and launch in 2020.  If the mission goes to Venus, the moon, or Mars, it could arrive at its destination in weeks or months.  If it goes to Saturn, it could take seven years.

There’s also a question of how NASA will fit this mission into its budget, which is already largely spoken for by missions in development.  NASA had planned to release the AO for its next New Frontiers mission in 2015.  Will that be delayed or does NASA think it can select two new missions this decade?  We will know more when NASA’s proposed 2015 budget is released in March.

In the hopes that future budgets will support the selection and development of the next Discovery mission, this is the kick off post for what will be a semi-regular series of posts on missions that are likely to be proposed.

SpaceNews also has an article on the selection of the next Discovery mission.

I’ll close with a list of previous Discovery mission selections and what’s known about the list of missions that were proposed for the last selection.  This will give an idea of the range of creative missions that may be proposed for the next selection.

Selected DISCOVERY and Mars Scout missions

The Mars Scout program selected missions similar is scope to the Discovery program and has since been merged with the Discovery program.  I’ve indicated these missions with an asterisk.

The first two missions were selected by NASA without an AO
NEAR – near Earth asteroid rendezvous and landing
Pathfinder – Mars lander and rover

AO Date and Missions
1994:     Lunar Prospector - orbiter
1994:     Stardust comet sample return and 2 comet flybys
1996:     Genesis – returned samples of the solar wind
1996:     CONTOUR – multiple comet flybys (failed)
1998:     Deep Impact – Delivered impactor to comet & 2 comet flybys
1998:     MESSENGER – Mercury orbiter
2000:     Kepler – exoplanet hunter
2000:     Dawn – orbit asteroids Vesta and Ceres
2002:     *Phoenix – Mars polar lander
2006:     GRAIL – 2 lunar orbiters
2006:     *MAVEN – Mars orbiter
2010:     InSight – Mars geophysical station

Proposals in response to the 2010 AO

NASA does not release any information on missions proposed except for the three finalists (and then only limited information except for the winner).  The competition is tough and most scientists propose multiple times, so most want to keep their proposals as confidential as possible.  NASA did release the number of proposals for each class of destination.  Where I can, I’ve listed additional detail based on what proposers stated publicly and based on a list maintained by Blackstar at the forum

Venus – 7 proposals
4 proposals reportedly for radar mapping missions
At least one for an atmospheric probe
Moon – 3 proposals
Lunar seismic station
Lunar south pole ice prospector(s)
Mars and it's moons – 4 proposals
Mars geophysical station (InSight)
Asteroids – 8 proposals
A near Earth asteroid lander
Near Earth asteroid survey
Jupiter system – 1 proposals
Io multi-flyby
Saturn system – 2 proposals
Titan lake lander (TiME)
Titan and Enceladus multi-flyby (JET)
Comets – 3 proposals

Comet Hopper (CHOPPER)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Russia's Lunar and Planetary Plans

In the several years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve seldom written about the Russian planetary program as a whole.  I’ve written about individual missions but I’ve not put all the pieces together since 2009.

A request from a reader and the quiet announcement last month that NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos are investigating options for joint Venus missions piqued my interest. 

Russia's Roscosmos and the United State's NASA space agencies are investigating a possible joint Venus mission.  Credit: Roscosmos

Two problems have stopped me from updating the big picture of Russian plans.  First, there seems to be relatively little information in English on the overall program and for specific missions.  Second, I have found it hard to distinguish what is a concept under consideration, what is a mission on the roadmap but not yet funded, and what is a mission in development with secure funding.  The problem may well be that I don’t read and write Russian – all this information may be available if internet searches are done in Russian instead of English.  (If any of my readers know of good web sites, please pass them along.  Even if they are in Russian, Google translate does a pretty good job.)

For much of my information on the Russian space program, I have depended on writer and space historian Anatoly Zak and his

Fate has not been kind to the Russian planetary program since the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Its Mars-96 mission was lost during a launch failure.  Then in 2011, the Phobos-Grunt mission was lost after it failed to respond to commands following launch.

Since then, the Russian program is following a two-pronged approach to rebuild its planetary program.  For this decade, it is planning a series of solo lunar missions to build up its own design, testing, and operations capabilities.  Simultaneously, it has built a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to explore Mars.  The earliest explorations of a potential partnership with NASA for Venus missions have just started.

After reading Zak’s web site, ESA’s website, and reading a number of news accounts, what follows is the best picture I’ve been able to put together of Russia’s planetary plans. 

Near term missions

    ExoMars orbiter - 2016
    ExoMars rover and science station - 2018

Concepts for the 2020s

From what I can tell, these missions are concepts and not approved or funded missions.  Launch dates therefore are likely to be notional for planning purposes rather than commitments.

Ganymede lander - late 2020s                                                           

This is an ambitious list, especially for the early 2020s.  Zak reports that the numbers of engineers and scientists to build, test, and operate these missions are small.  Russia is enhancing the impact its resources have through partnerships with other space agencies.  Still, several of the concepts seem likely to be dropped unless Russia invests substantially more resources to its program. 

Cooperative Missions with ESA

Russia and ESA have signed agreements that make Russia a substantial partner in both of ESA’s Mars missions this decade.  Russia will make crucial contributions to both ExoMars missions:

ExoMars orbiter and demonstration lander 2016
Russia to provide launch
Russian-supplied instruments for the orbiter:
Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (3 infrared spectrometers)
Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (high resolution mapping of near-surface water ice)

ExoMars rover & science station 2018
Russia to provide launch
Russia to provide entry and landing system with ESA contributions
Russian-supplied instruments for the rover:
Infrared Spectrometer for ExoMars
Adron (detect subsurface water and hydrated minerals)
[previously, a 3rd instrument, a laser spectrometer was listed as a Russian instrument but is not currently listed on ESA’s ExoMars webpage]

Russia will need to develop substantial new capabilities to land the large 2018 ExoMars rover.  It previously has not landed a large planetary probe on any world except on the very different Venus (and then as part of the Soviet Union series of landers that ended in 1986).  ESA plans to share the technology it develops from its planned 2016 demonstration lander with Russia. 

Russia has previously discussed using the 2018 ExoMars landing stage as a long-lived weather and geophysical station.  I have not seen any discussion of this recently.  If this does happen and the station has a seismometer, joint seismological studies with NASA’s InSight mission could be done to improve upon the science either instrument could do on its own.

In addition to Mars missions, managers for the European and Russian space agencies have stated that they are discussing Russian participation in ESA’s JUICE Jovian system-Ganymede orbiter mission.  Russia could contribute the launch vehicle and in return be provided payload space for instruments on the JUICE orbiter or for a small Ganymede lander.

The Moon

Russia's planned lunar missions. Credit ESA

Russia has been planning a series of missions to the moon for about the last 15 to 20 years.  More recently, the planning included a partnership with India that was dropped following the Phobos-Grunt mission’s failure.  Since 2012, a series of three Russian-ledonly missions have been planned.  An ESA website announcing Russia’s interest in European scientist participation in the missions provides the best summary I’ve found of the current plans:

·       “Luna-25 is a small technology [demonstration] lander with a limited payload, which will target a high latitude [near polar] landing side in the southern hemisphere on the near side. 

·      “Luna-26 will be a polar orbiting spacecraft which will operate from one year at 100 – 150 km and then for 2 years at 500 – 700km altitude, providing communications relay capabilities for missions which follow.

·      “Luna-27 is a larger lander with an enhanced payload capability. The mission will have near polar landing site in the southern hemisphere, targeting frozen volatiles in the sub surface.”

Since 2012 the launch dates for these missions have slipped to the dates shown above.  Zak’s website states that resources to develop these missions may be scarce: “Even these postponed launch dates remain far from being guaranteed, because lunar missions alternate in the flight manifest with two joint Russian-European launches to Mars, which themselves face a considerable time pressure but have a much better chance of getting the priority in development due to their international nature. (Many aspects of the Russian planetary exploration program are developed and supported by the same institutions with a relatively small team of scientists and engineers, limiting parallel work on multiple projects.).”  Zak concludes, “Luna-Glob is currently scheduled to lift off in 2015 or 2016, but could be easily postponed by months or even years to complete its development.”


Venus missions were a major success for the Soviet Union’s planetary program.  For the last decade, Russia has been investigating options for a return to Venus known as Venera-D.   All versions of the plans I’ve seen have included a short-lived (few hours) lander and an orbiter.  Various versions have also included balloons for atmospheric studies.  Currently, a possible date of 2024 is shown for a mission with a single large, short-lived lander, a small lander that would survive a day, and two orbiters.

Towards the end of December 2013, NASA quietly announced that it was seeking scientists to study requirements for a possible joint US and Russian Venus missions “undertaking complementary and coordinated missions to Venus using the 2021-2023 launch opportunities.”  The potential scope of the missions was left vague.  The US Venus mission concept referred to in the announcement was a particularly ambitious plan that included a large, capable orbiter, two balloons, and two large, short-lived landers.  Presumably, the US contribution under discussion would be much less ambitious, perhaps a smaller orbiter, a balloon, or a lander.  (It’s not clear, however, where NASA would find the funding in its planetary program for its contribution.)

Numerous studies have looked at the types of missions needed to advance Venus exploration, and they have concluded that concurrent and synergistic orbiter, balloon, and lander missions would be ideal.  By cooperating, Russia and NASA could potentially substantially enhance the scientific return beyond what either could accomplish alone. 

Other Concept for Future Missions

The Boomerang Phobos mission would be a second try (after the failed Phobos-Grunt mission) to return a sample from the Martian moon.

The Ganymede lander study is for an ambitious orbiter and soft lander mission that would be similar to a concept previously studied for a Europa orbiter and lander (see summary here).  NASA studied a similarly capable Europa lander and concluded that it would be a highly complex mission.