Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NEW ORLEANS — The new decadal survey for Earth science research will likely be unveiled in early January, slightly later than previously planned.

Speaking before a standing-room-only town hall audience at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) here Dec. 12, Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, said the release of the report will only be the start of a process of turning its priorities into missions.

The study, performed by the National Academies and patterned after those done in astrophysics, heliophysics and planetary science, identifies priorities in Earth science research. It is designed to guide planning by NASA and other government agencies involved in such work, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. It was scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

“The hope, of course, was that they would have the decadal to roll out here at this meeting. They didn’t quite make that,” Freilich said. He now expects the report to be released during the upcoming annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, scheduled for Jan. 7–11 in Austin, Texas. He added he had no information on the contents of that final report.

Freilich said that NASA’s work will only be getting started once the decadal is released. What will follow, he said, will be a “roadmapping process” that will last up to 12 to 18 months. That process, he said, will turn the priorities in the decadal survey “into actual, executable proto-missions.”

Those future missions, he said, will join a queue of about 20 missions in varying stages of design and development planned for launch through 2023. The earliest Freilich expects funding to open up for missions based on the decadal survey is late 2021 or early 2022.

Addressing another near-term issue at the town hall meeting, Freilich said that the agency, like the rest of the federal government, is operating under a short-term stopgap spending bill known as a continuing resolution (CR) that expires Dec. 22. That CR, as well as the previous one that funded the government when the 2018 fiscal year started Oct. 1 though Dec. 8, keeps programs going at 2017 levels, despite proposals by the Trump administration to cut Earth science funding and terminate several missions or instruments.

“It is sufficient for us to make significant planned progress on our entire program of record,” Freilich said of the current CR. “We have a plan, and nobody has told us not to spend the appropriated money on the plan.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...