Planetary science review to be released soon

The long-awaited—apprehensively, in some quarters—senior review of NASA planetary science missions is effectively complete and will be publicly released in the next week or two, a NASA official said Monday.

“The planetary senior review, from a scientific report standpoint, has just been completed,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a presentation at the NASA Exploration Science Forum on Monday at NASA’s Ames Research Center. NASA is now drafting “letters of direction” to the various missions covered by the review, he said.

Green said that, because of the high level of interest in the planetary science senior review both in the scientific community and the media, NASA will wait until those letters are complete before releasing the report and NASA’s response. “I anticipate within the next week or two that that will be accomplished,” he said.

That interest stems from earlier concerns that constrained budgets could force NASA to make difficult decisions about canceling some ongoing missions, such as Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Those concerns have eased somewhat in recent months, particularly involving Cassini. Some of Green’s charts earlier in the presentation mentioned Cassini’s plans to orbit closer to Saturn, known as “proximal orbits,” assuming the mission continues. “Cassini’s proximal orbits is part of that senior review,” Green said, “although I did show it on my chart, didn’t I?”

Green’s comments came as NASA appeared to resuscitate an astronomy mission threatened with cancellation in another senior review. The NASA astrophysics senior review, released in May, recommended terminating the Spitzer Space Telescope unless there was a way to reduce its costs to fit within constrained budgets. On Monday, NASA announced that Spitzer would remain in operation for the next two years.

“It has been announced to be approved for an extended mission for the next two years,” Green said at the forum, as he encouraged planetary scientists to make greater use of Spitzer and other space telescopes that are part of the astrophysics division.

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