Tuesday, October 14, 2008


NASA Night at DPS just ended a few minutes ago, and I took the opportunity to view the presentations online. In a bit, it should also be archived for everyone to view here. NASA Night is an opportunity from program heads at NASA HQ in Washington to speak to the Planetary Science community about what NASA HQ is doing with respect to the Planetary Science Division at NASA and for them to get input from the community. These events can often be contentious as changed made by NASA HQ with how things are done and what missions and announcements of opportunity are coming up can effect people's funding and lively hood.

There were two presentations given at NASA Night. The first was given by the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division (PSD), Jim Green, and the second was given by the director of SARA (the grant program at NASA), Max Bernstein. There was a question and answer session following each talk.

Jim Green's talk provided the most meat at NASA Night. He discussed the problems the Mars Science Laboratory has been having lately, the upcoming New Frontiers and Discovery Announcements of Opportunity (AO), the next Decadal Survey, the Outer Planets Flagship Mission, and the new travel and conference funding for NASA employees. Obviously he covered quite a bit of territory.

As is known by now, the Mars Science Laboratory recently incurred yet another cost overrun, more than the overguide threshold requied by NASA. This resulted in a review with the adminstrator. From this meeting last week, the adminstrator agreed to keep MSL on the current launch schedule for 2009. However, funding issues remain. The PSD will perform a review of the extent of the overruns, as the JPL estimates appear to lack credibility. Once this is done, the PSD will determine how to cover the costs. Green assured the audience that he will use the Planetary Science Subcommittee's recommendations to only get the funds from missions outside the Mars Program (like Juno) as a last resort, with funding mostly coming out of JPL and the Mars Program (possibly affecting MAVEN). The PSD will then worth with the White House Budget Office and the Congress to finalize a resolution, though with MSL now 30% (or more) over the initial budget estimate, Congress could decide to cancel MSL. At the moment, there are no plans to descope instruments on MSL.

Green next discussed the next Decadal Survey. Decadal Surveys act as a guide for NASA when selecting missions and instruments over the next 10 years. The last Decadal Survey in 2001 promoted Pluto/Kuiper Belt flyby and Jupiter missions as the top priorities for the New Frontiers program, which resulted in the selection of New Horizons and Juno. The last survey also excluded the Mars program from the priority list, since at the time (and still to this day) the Mars program is separate from missions to the rest of the solar system. The next Decadal Survey, scheduled for 2011, will include Martian and Lunar missions. Extrasolar planets will be covered by the Astrophysics Division.

Green next discussed the Discovery and New Frontiers programs. Green briefly covered the DSMCE program (pronounced DOS-MICE). This was a mission concept study program to see what kinds of Discovery-class missions could be performed if the proposers were given two free Stirling Radioisotope engines for energy, rather than solar panels, which have been used for all previous Discovery-class missions. One of the concepts they are looking at is the Io Volcano Observer, a study led by my advisor, Alfred McEwen. Reports from these studies are due in December. The next Discovery AO is planned for 6 months after the New Frontiers AO. Green said that the decision to use government-furnished Sterling engines for this next AO has not been made yet. The next New Frontiers AO is currently being developed. The draft AO will be released soon, and will be available for public comment for three months before the final AO is posted.

Green then briefly covered the Outer Planets Flagship Mission selection. Nothing new to report since the PSS meeting a couple of weeks ago. Green did confirm that the change in the planned launch window, from 2016-2017 to 2018-2022, was done so that the NASA-provided mission components would launch closer in time to the ESA-provided components.

Finally, Green reported that NASA is severely restricting funding for NASA employees to go to conferences as well as sponsorship of conferences. This restriction includes attendance at DPS, LPSC, and AGU. This would limit the number of civil servant employees at these conferences, such as those from JPL and Ames. Jonathan Lunine, during the Q&A session, brought up the argument that this restriction, which maybe temporary, would limit grad students exposure to federal civil servants, which could make employment at NASA facilities less attractive. In additional, the restriction could cause a drop in membership to professional organizations like AGU and AAS as NASA employees would no longer benefit from the reduction in attendance fees at conferences.

Don't forget, the Galilean Satellites session is scheduled for tomorrow morning at 5:30am EDT.

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