Last last week, NASA announced that it was ending production of the Advanced Sterling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), a replacement for existing radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that make more efficient use of plutonium fuel. As I reported for Space News, NASA justified the decision by noting the existing stockpile of plutonium-238, which will grow as production of the isotope resumes, and the lack of immediate demand for the ASRG among future missions. It also frees up funding within NASA’s planetary science program—about $170 million through 2016—at a time when the program is dealing with reduced budgets.
One group of scientists is working this week to address those funding concerns for NASA’s planetary programs. The Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) issued a call for action earlier this week, asking its members and others to contact their members of Congress and ask them to restore funding for planetary programs at the space agency. “[R]eductions proposed in the President’s Fiscal Year 2013 and 2014 budget requests could cripple planetary science,” states a sample letter included in the announcement. “We have already seen missions delayed and cancelled, international partnerships broken, and we face decades of lost science.”
Members of Congress are asked to do to things to address this concern: ensure that NASA can meet the goals laid out in the most recent planetary science decadal survey, which, the letter notes, calls for a mix of small, medium, and flagship-class missions as well as adequate research and technology development funding; and to end budget sequestration, “which has had a severely damaging impact on NASA, planetary science, and federal research and development across the board.”
The DPS lobbying effort has a social media twist, too, as scientists use the #FundPlanetary hashtag on Twitter to raise awareness of the issue.