I want to thank Bruce Moomaw and Van Kane for alerting me to the release of the presentations from last week's Planetary Sciences Subcommittee meeting. This subcommittee meets a few times a year to discuss NASA programs and projects related to unmanned exploration of our solar system. For the most part, this subcommittee is presented with presentations from the individual sub-subcommittees, like OPAG (Outer Planet Assessment Group), as well as presentations on R&A and future missions.
The main story from this meeting was the cost overruns by the Mars Science Laboratory, a next-gen rover currently scheduled for launch late next year. The problems with MSL may cause a launch delay to the next Mars launch opportunity in 2011, but that would tack on more than $300 million to the projects already ballooning price tag. An additional option would be to launch the rover into a solar parking orbit in 2010, before getting to Mars in 2012, but that would still tack on around $300 million to MSL's cost. A decision on MSL's future could come as soon as tomorrow, after a meeting with NASA's administrator. MSL's cost overruns have become so great that they are seriously affecting NASA's other near-term missions, such as Juno (a Jupiter New Frontiers-class mission), GRAIL (a lunar Discovery-class mission), MAVEN, and LADEE. Very quickly, MSL is becoming the beast that ate the Mars program. Mars '16 will probably get kicked, for example, and the sample return mission, will likely remain 15-20 years in the future.
To happier pastures, the Outer Planets Flagship Mission studies both continue to crystallize. Curt Niebur gave a presentation on the current state of that program. They are still looking at a November 3 deadline to turn in their final reports to NASA HQ, with additional site reviews in December and down selection still set for mid-February 2009. The report makes clear that both NASA and ESA will get their heads together to pick a single mission, possibly eliminating the possibility that NASA could decide to launch the Europa Orbiter, for example, and ESA will launch the Titan boat and balloon. From Niebur's presentation, it would appear we can expect not one, but three reports from each team: one describing the NASA contribution in detail, another describing the ESA contribution in detail, and an overall report descibing the missions and how they will link together.
Niebur's presentation also describes how the review process will proceed. NASA and ESA review teams will go over their agency's contributions (for NASA that would be the Jupiter Europa Orbiter and the Titan Orbiter). In February 2009, management from both agencies will come together to discuss their reviews and decided a single project.
Niebur also presented an overview of the Jupiter Europa Orbiter mission. The mission still includes 3-5 Io flybys, likely in a single, "Io phase" of the mission's 24-33 month Jupiter orbital tour phase. Launch is set for 2018-2022. 12 instruments are planned for the "sweet spot" mission.
Link: Planetary Sciences Subcommittee Presentations - October 2-3, 2008 [www.lpi.usra.edu]