Planetary missions also have to worry about a senior review

On Monday, the head of NASA’s astrophysics division warned that tight budgets could keep the agency from continuing to fund all of its ongoing astronomy missions when they come up for review early next year. A day later, the head of NASA’s planetary science division offered a similar warning regarding planetary science missions, with the possibility that some high-profile missions may lose funding and have to shut down after 2014.

Speaking at a meeting of the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, held via teleconference on Tuesday, NASA planetary science division director Jim Green said planetary missions that have already completed their primary missions would be subject to a senior review next year, the guidelines for which will be finalized in early 2014. A number of missions will be involved in that review, including Cassini, Curiosity, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Opportunity, and NASA contributions to ESA’s Mars Express mission. Spacecraft that have not completed their primary missions, like Juno and New Horizons, are not included, and Green said the MESSENGER Mercury orbiter would also not likely be included in the senior review because it will be nearing the end of its mission as it runs out of fuel.

The overall budget for funding extended missions will be about the same in fiscal year 2015 as it is in 2014, at least based on the administration’s budget proposals, Green said. The challenge is that there are more missions up for review, most notably with the inclusion of Curiosity, which completes its primary mission in 2014. “This will be a very interesting competition,” Green said. “We have two very expensive flagship missions, Cassini and Curiosity, which are expensive to operate even in an extended mission phase, along with a lot of our other missions, which are doing tremendous science at a lower cost. So, this particular competition we’ll have to do very carefully.”

That upcoming senior review has already raised concerns in the planetary science community because of the perceived competition between Cassini and Curiosity. The convention wisdom in the community is that there is not enough money to afford to continue operating both Cassini and Curiosity; or, if they are both continued, fund any other ongoing missions. In a head-to-head competition, Curiosity, on Mars only since August 2012, would seem to have the advantage over Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. On the other hand, scientists note that Mars is a frequent destination for NASA missions, while there are no Saturn missions on the books after Cassini.

11 comments to Planetary missions also have to worry about a senior review

  • amightywind

    More Washington Monument syndrome coming from the planetary community. But if you must turn one off, the choice is easy. Turn off Cassini. They are into the 10th year of a 4 year mission.

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind said:

    But if you must turn one off, the choice is easy. Turn off Cassini. They are into the 10th year of a 4 year mission.

    Apparently you’re not aware that Cassini is scheduled to do a controlled fall into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017.

    But this does bring up a good subject of whether operating a science mission beyond it’s design life is a “good” idea. In this case, “good” is whatever parameters you want to use.

    If the goal is to maximize the taxpayers money, it sure seems like operating science equipment for as long as it’s returning useful data makes sense. For instance, would it have made sense to turn off Voyager 1&2 a couple of decades ago? Or the Opportunity rover on Mars, which has lasted 38X longer than it’s planned mission, and is still going.

    I would think that these types of extended missions make a lot of sense, especially when the funding for follow on missions is likely to be pretty sparse.

    But if you don’t want to wring all the value possible from the U.S. Taxpayers investment, OK. But I disagree.

    • Hiram

      “But this does bring up a good subject of whether operating a science mission beyond it’s design life is a ‘good’ idea. In this case, ‘good’ is whatever parameters you want to use.”

      Cassini is pretty wonderful, but it is somewhat jaw-dropping that our annual investment in Cassini operations is about $50M. Pretty much the same as for MSL/Curiosity.

      The “planned mission” duration is an important number. It’s the length of operational time the team proposes at the outset as being worth the cost. So once you get past that number, it’s gravy, and not necessarily worth the cost according to the original assessment by the mission team. Doing more is always good, but it isn’t always optimal in science/dollar.

      That’s what Senior Reviews are all about. To assess the science/dollar, taking into account the cost to new opportunities of keeping a mission going. That’s how “good” is parametrized by the people who know best. Continuing these missions until they die naturally may not make a lot of sense, if it is these missions that are making the funding for follow-on missions pretty sparse.

    • amightywind

      You gonna turn off a year old $2.5 billion mission instead? 99% of the value of the scientific value of Cassini mission has been realized. The choice is obvious if not pleasant. When someone asks me, “Choose a budget item to cut.” I pick one. Saying no isn’t an alternative.

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind said:

    When someone asks me, “Choose a budget item to cut.” I pick one. Saying no isn’t an alternative.

    The other alternative is to not spend money on new things.

    Here’s the deal. If you can’t maximize the money I give you, then why should I give you any additional money? It’s like a kid who gets a new toy, plays with it for a day, and then asks for a new toy the next day, and continues that pattern. Why reward bad behavior?

    And, as it turns out, the decision on Cassini has already been made to end the mission in 2017, so you’re talking about something that has already been evaluated and planned to end. You need to pick something else to take the money from.

    Another example of this were the people that thought it was a good idea to throw away a $100B science laboratory in space (i.e. the ISS) just after it was finished being built. Talk about ADHD.

    No, if you can’t show that you know how to maximize the value of the money you’re given, then you shouldn’t be given anymore money. It’s pretty simple.

    • Hiram

      Well, with due defense for Cassini, it’s simply misleading to compare it’s cancellation with throwing away ISS “just after it was finished being built”, or asking for a “new toy the next day”. Cassini has done a wonderful job since 2004 — the job that was planned for it. It has also done a lot more. The fact that it would otherwise stop in 2017 only means that pulling that stoppage date back by a couple of years saves $150M. Not small change. But it comes down to science/dollar.

  • TwoBirdsInTheHand

    I don’t get the concept of holding Cassini’s long years of success against it. No other mission has delivered as much groundbreaking scientific discoveries, based not only on my personal impressions, but on the total number of scientific papers published. Saturn is the most target-rich environment in the Solar System, boasting not-yet-understood huge storms at both poles, a major ring system, over 60 moons, the only satellite spitting water into space, and the only satellite with a significant atmosphere. In 2017, Cassini will fly between the rings and the planet 22 times, which in itself would be judged by NASA worthy of a New Frontiers ($1 Billion) mission – for a tiny fraction (in comparison) of additional cost. Cassini has a full suite of instruments in place NOW to study phenomena that are not fully understood, for pennies compared to the total budget.

    Cancel Cassini? In favor of what? Throw away a mission that is already at the most target rich environment around, in order to research a new mission that’s a decade from delivering less science?

    • Hiram

      “Cancel Cassini? In favor of what?”

      Actually, there are lots of exciting planetary mission concepts that are waiting for new starts. Also, the Senior Review won’t judge a mission on the basis of what it’s done, but rather on the basis of what it looks like it can do.

      “… most target rich environment around …”

      Uh, what? When did Saturn achieve that status?

      “…in order to research a new mission that’s a decade from delivering less science.”

      That’s said by someone who didn’t know what Cassini would be cancelled in favor of.

      “… for pennies compared to the total budget.”

      $50M/year (total U.S. cost $2.6B for what has, thus far, been a ten year mission). Them’s pretty big pennies.

      Science/dollar. Science/dollar. Recite that, over and over. Make that Future science/dollar.

  • Egad

    Cassini: See , especially slide 4:

    Threat to Cassini’s final years?

    • NASA’s notional budget for the outyears no longer includes funding for Cassini
    in the outer planets line

    • The final three years of the Cassini mission promise entirely new discoveries as
    the orbit of the spacecraft is cranked to high inclination and periapse is
    brought inside the rings. This geometry enables acquisition of new data on
    Saturn’s interior and magnetosphere,
    as well as a new perspective for viewing
    its rings, that continue the Cassini legacy of ground-breaking new scientific
    discoveries in the Saturnian system; equivalent to a New Frontiers class mission

    OPAG finding: NASA should explicitly show a notional budget for the Cassini
    Solstice Mission in 2015, 2016, and 2017. OPAG asserts that the unique science return from the Cassini end-of-mission observations strongly warrants full funding of the final three years of the mission

  • James

    Astrophysics seems to be in the same boat: short term they have JWST and some operating missions gathering data, but in the long term not much. ESA is leading Dark Energy, notwithstanding WFIRST/NRO Mirror mission (Which had to add an exo-planet choronograph to sell it), Gravity Waves with LISA, and speculation that ESA is going to pick an X Ray mission for launch in 2028.

    Seems planetary and AP mission costs are climbing at a rate that well surpasses inflation, but a budget that isn’t keeping up with inflation. I bet same is true for all of SMD.

    So how does one sustain a science program that has not money to mount anything but little balloons, sounding rockets, small explorers and the like? CAn’t sustain a $5B organization that produces ground breaking results once every 20 years….

  • Concerned Citizen

    Regarding the extended missions in NASA’s planetary program, the premise that we must choose which one(s) to shut off is wrong. Both of the strategic flagship missions in the discussion above, Curiosity and Cassini, are multi-billion dollar assets that are working perfectly and have the potential for enormous additional discoveries ahead of them. Curiosity will have only just gotten to its prime destination, Mt. Sharp, when it goes into extended operations. With the most sophisticated science payload ever sent to Mars, there is no way that Curiosity can possibly fail to astonish us.

    Cassini has four incredible years ahead of it to (1) observe Saturn and its moons and rings in a season never before seen from such a close vantage point; (2) conduct multiple flybys of two of the most enigmatic and scientifically interesting bodies in the solar system, Titan and Enceladus; and (3) in the final “end game” before plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn, conduct a New Frontiers Juno-like study of the deep interior of Saturn. The final four years of Cassini would require several Discovery missions and at least one New Frontier mission to replicate, the sum total development and launch cost of which would greatly exceed the total cost of the Cassini mission. The Cassini development and launch cost is already behind us and the mission is already there, performing flawlessly.

    No, the question is NOT which one to shut off but rather, how do we as tax payers get the NASA planetary budget restored to enable both to be done. We are talking about a minuscule amount of funding…a mere $60M per year out a total federal discretionary budget that is hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars. This is yet one more example of the collateral damage that will be caused by the Administration’s persistent drive to slash NASA’s planetary budget by an amount that is completely out of proportion with any other element of the NASA program.

    Let us fight the budget cut together, rather than give in to it and fight over which of our beautiful and gifted “children” should be sacrificed.

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