Astrobiology Top 10: The Future for Space Missions
Report identified priority missions for planetary science in the next decade
Research priorities were selected through a rigorous review that included input from five expert panels. The committee also sought extensive input from the planetary sciences community through town hall meetings and white papers. Recommendations are informed by NASA’s own FY 2011 projected budget scenarios for 2013-2022. In addition, the committee hired a contractor to provide independent cost and technical analyses of select mission proposals.
“Our recommendations are science-driven, and they offer a balanced mix of missions -- large, medium, and small -- that have the potential to greatly expand our knowledge of the Solar System,” said Steven W. Squyres, professor of astronomy at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “However, in these tough economic times, some difficult choices may have to be made. With that in mind, our priority missions were carefully selected based on their potential to yield the most scientific benefit per dollar spent.”
A mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and its subsurface ocean -- one of the most promising environments in the Solar System for supporting life -- should be the second priority for NASA’s large-scale planetary science missions. However, NASA should fly the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) only if NASA’s budget for planetary science is increased, the report says, and JEO’s mission scope is made more affordable. The independent estimate put the price tag at $4.7 billion. The committee concluded that unless costs could be brought down, conducting JEO would preclude too many other important missions.
The third priority for large missions would be the Uranus Orbiter and Probe mission to investigate that planet’s interior structure, atmosphere, and composition. The report says that this mission should be initiated between 2013 and 2022, but it should be subjected to rigorous, independent cost verification throughout its development and reduced or cancelled if costs grow significantly above its assessed $2.7 billion price tag.
For medium-size missions, the report recommends that NASA select two new missions to be included in its New Frontiers program, which explores the Solar System with frequent, mid-size spacecraft missions. Since its inception in 2003, the program has initiated two missions and is in the process of selecting a third. The committee recommends that NASA also select a fourth and fifth mission in the 2013-2023 time frame and identifies several candidates from which NASA could choose, but does not prioritize them. Instead, selection should be based on competitive peer review.
The National Science Foundation, which supports nearly all areas of planetary science except space missions, should expand its funding for existing laboratories and establish new facilities as needed, the report says. It also urges NSF to complete the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which could provide important contributions to planetary science.
The study was sponsored by NASA and NSF. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.