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.