Mars Rover Scientist Squyres To Chair Planetary Decadal Survey

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WOODLANDS, Texas — Steve Squyres, the well-respected planetary scientist who led NASA’s overachieving Mars Exploration Rover mission, has been put in charge of drafting the U.S. space agency’s next 10-year plan for robotic exploration of the solar system.

Squyres selection was announced here March 25 during the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Larry Soderblom, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Team in Flagstaff, Ariz., will co-chair the National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey. The priority-setting effort begins in earnest this summer with draft recommendations expected before the end of 2010.

A final report is due out by mid-2011, Squyres told the international assembly of space scientists gathered here for five days of discussions mixing the latest scientific findings with budgetary forecasts from the NASA officials who help keep them in business.

Squyres said the forthcoming decadal survey, in contrast to previous ones, will place a much greater emphasis on evaluating the technical maturity and probable costs of candidate missions. He said NASA is making resources available to do conservative “moderate fidelity” cost estimates for a limited number of high-priority candidate missions. The objective of the decadal survey, he added, is to produce a realistic — not “heavily oversubscribed” — set of candidate missions for NASA to carry out during the coming decade.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, concurred.

“That decadal survey helps set the tone for the next 10 years … to put a new plan in place that will take us well into the next decade,” Green said.

As the science community prepares to look ahead, space science officials like Green are still very much focused on the pressing challenges of the here and now.

Green told Space News that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission’s cost overrun remains a big worry in terms of its budgetary impact on other space science programs. MSL technical woes prompted NASA last year to slip the nuclear-powered rover’s launch from 2009 to 2011.

Green said NASA’s commitment to keep MSL on track is “very strong” — although the project has tough technical challenges still remaining. A set of independent reviews are in the works to determine whether the rover effort can stay within a projected $400 million cost increase identified last year. As it stands, NASA expects to spend upward of $2.2 billion on MSL, more than triple the placeholder estimate included in the 2002 decadal survey. By 2004, following more study and the formal selection of MSL’s science payload, the estimate was revised upward to $1.4 billion.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to hit the Mars community,” Green said of the cost growth. One outcome is that a 2016 mission to Mars will not be solely a NASA mission, but will entail collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

“We are working with ESA very carefully … and it’s starting to come together now. So the 2016 mission will still be a very good mission. We believe it will have a landed asset, probably a rover, and we believe it will have an orbital asset … and it will be a NASA-ESA mission,” Green explained.

Green said such an international collaboration at Mars will set the stage for bolder activity, specifically a Mars sample return project. Forging good international collaborations at Mars earlier, he added, has the potential for success in the future.

During a March 23 briefing for conference attendees, Green said NASA still is planning to release announcements of opportunity to kick-start the process of picking new Discovery-class and New Frontier outer planet missions, but that timing was still contingent on the outcome of discussions with the White House Office of Management and Budget. NASA’s just-enacted 2009 budget includes a roughly $200 million decrease for science, providing just $4.5 billion. U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed increasing NASA’s top line to $18.7 billion in 2010 — a $900 million increase over this year — but the fine details, including how much would go toward space science, are not due for release until late April.

Speaking in generalities, Green said it was NASA’s intention to release the New Frontiers announcement of opportunity first followed six months later by the Discovery announcement.

Stephen Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston noted during an interview here that lack of top leadership at NASA is an issue of growing concern – particularly as it relates to the space agency’s plans to send astronauts and robots to the Moon in preparation for future expeditions to Mars and other solar system destinations.

NASA is currently being led by Chris Scolese, a career employee who was the agency’s third highest official before being named acting administrator upon Mike Griffin’s January departure.

“There are a lot of voices — and this vacuum of power at NASA has created the opportunity for basically everybody to get out and let their opinion be known about whether we should be going to the Moon — and fears that the Moon will become a trap and we’ll never move on,” Mackwell said.