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This image taken by the Cassini spacecraft’s wide-angle camera shows the southern hemisphere of Saturn, looking toward the non-illuminated side of the planet’s rings.

NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Space Science Institute/ Associated Press,

NASA's missions shrink as funding dwindles

  • Article by: Joel Achenbach
  • Washington Post
  • December 26, 2013 - 8:00 PM

 

– The Cassini spacecraft is in splendid shape as it circles Saturn. Conceived in the 1980s, launched in 1997, Cassini arrived at the gas-giant planet in 2004 and has continued to deliver stunning images of the jewel of the solar system.

The unmanned probe scored a major discovery in 2005 when it found geysers erupting from what appears to be a subsurface sea on the moon Enceladus that scientists believe could harbor some form of exotic life.

Cassini also mapped the surface of the moon Titan, which has a dense atmosphere, and lakes, and rivers, though there’s no water — the liquid is made of hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane, as if it had been designed by the oil industry.

Fuel is running low on Cassini, but there’s enough for another four years of maneuvering. Technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., have mastered the art of using Titan’s gravity to steer Cassini into new, interesting orbits. NASA hopes to send the spacecraft diving inside the majestic rings of Saturn to study their composition. The extended mission would cost about $60 million a year.

But that money has not materialized in the NASA budget. If there is no funding, NASA will have to end the Cassini mission next year. For robotic spacecraft, the greatest hazard in the solar system turns out to be the budget.

The mere possibility that such luxury-class missions could be shut down reveals the budgetary stress at NASA and calls into question whether the agency in coming years will be able to go forward with some of the big, ambitious exploratory programs that scientists have made their top priority.

Cassini would be destroyed

NASA cannot simply abandon Cassini, because it could crash someday into Enceladus and could contaminate the hypothetical biosphere with Earth microbes that are lurking aboard it. Instead, navigators at JPL would be forced to aim the $3.5 billion spacecraft directly at Saturn and let it disintegrate as it enters the atmosphere.

“I think it would be the height of folly to terminate such a profoundly successful mission when we’re not done yet,” said Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., and the leader of the imaging team for Cassini.

The bet within NASA is that the Obama administration and Congress will find a way to keep Cassini flying. And it’s virtually certain that they will scrape together the money to extend the operation of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

But earlier this month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made an unexpected announcement at a meeting of a NASA science advisory committee: There will be no new flagship-class missions.

Those are projects that cost $1 billion-plus. Flagships include Cassini, Curiosity, the Hubble Space Telescope and such legendary spacecraft as Viking and Voyager.

Bolden’s comments landed in a delicate period in which the agency’s fiscal 2015 budget is being drafted by the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with NASA.

Will Cassini get funding? Will other high-priority programs? The scientists who depend on this funding are anxious. They have made their to-do list for the coming decade, and it includes some multibillion-dollar proposals. For example, scientists want to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, another potential abode of extraterrestrial life.

NASA officials tried to settle everyone down a few days later by disseminating a new statement from Bolden saying that “NASA remains committed to planning, launching and operating flagship missions.” The gist is that NASA cannot start a new flagship mission right now, but perhaps the fiscal situation will improve in the future.

The Obama administration argues that NASA is being forced to fit 20 pounds of programs into a 10-pound bag. Officials note that Congress began squeezing NASA’s budget in 2010, and then the sequester trimmed it further, leaving the agency $2 billion short of where it was in 2009.

Back to the 1990s’ mantra

NASA had to find a way to absorb those cuts, even as cost overruns on certain science missions made officials wary of the jumbo, multibillion-dollar projects. The administration essentially wants to go back to the “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy that had been the NASA mantra in the 1990s.

Agency officials emphasize that they continue to push forward with a long list of science missions, most of them costing less than a billion dollars. They include the Maven probe that is on its way to study the atmosphere of Mars and the Osiris REx spacecraft that is supposed to fly to an asteroid, grab a tiny sample and bring it back to Earth.

Among already approved flagships are the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for a 2018 launch, and a 2020 Mars rover that will be a virtual duplicate of Curiosity.

But the space science community feels it is facing a new era of limits even as the universe screams to be explored.

© 2014 Star Tribune