The Planetary Society released this week a statement prepared “in collaboration” with the planetary sciences divisions of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and American Geophysical Union (AGU) about the current state of NASA’s planetary sciences program. The organizations support NASA’s decision announced nearly two months ago to develop a Mars rover based on Curiosity for launch in 2020, with the caveat that the rover should be used to cache samples for later return to Earth as recommended by the 2011 planetary sciences decadal survey. “It is of the utmost importance” that the 2020 rover be a sample cacher, the statement reads, “in order to maximize science return and support a balanced and affordable approach to the exploration of our solar system.”
The organizations, though, are still seeking to reverse the $300 million cut in NASA’s planetary sciences budget proposed for FY2013, given that Congress has yet to approve a 2013 budget. (NASA, like other federal agencies, is operating under a continuing resolution that funds programs at 2012 levels, although NASA officials have indicated they are spending on planetary programs at the proposed 2013 level of $1.2 billion instead of the $1.5 billion/year rate in 2012.) Giving the NASA planetary program a flat budget of $1.5 billion a year for 2013 and beyond would, the organizations argue, allow NASA to perform both the 2020 Mars rover mission as well as a Europa orbiter mission (the second-ranked large-scale mission in the decadal report), and would allow NASA to increase the tempo of smaller Discovery and New Frontiers missions to levels recommended in the report.
There is, though, a subtle difference between the versions of the statement released by The Planetary Society and the AAS’s Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS). The Planetary Society’s version emphasizes first that the increased funding would allow for the the Mars 2020 rover and Europa mission, then notes that the funding would also increase the rate of Discovery and New Frontiers missions. The DPS statement, though, addresses these in reverse order, first mentioning the increased rate of Discovery and New Frontier missions and then stating it also would fund the Mars and Europa missions.
The Planetary Society’s version also includes a little additional rhetoric about the importance of planetary sciences funding. “We find the shift in budgetary priority deeply troubling,” its version states, after rueing the implications of the proposed cuts. “Namely, it represents a step backwards from our nation’s long commitment to exploration and the pursuit of answers to the big questions of ‘where do we come from?’ and ‘are we alone?'”