DART Didymos
SpaceX will launch NASA's DART mission, which will fly to the near Earth asteroid Didymos and collide with its small moon as a planetary defense demonstration. Credit: JHUAPL

WASHINGTON — NASA and the National Academies are set to start the next planetary science decadal survey, one that will place an increased emphasis on areas like astrobiology and planetary defense.

In a virtual town hall meeting March 16, representatives of NASA and the National Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) said they have approved the “statement of task,” the document guiding the scope and content of the decadal survey over the next two years.

Much of the content of the decadal will be similar to the previous one, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. That includes providing a broad overview of the field and identification of the most important science questions. As in past decadals, the report will rank the most important large and medium space missions NASA should pursue over the next decade to help answer those questions.

Unlike previous decadals, though, this study will expand beyond traditional planetary science topics. “There is an increased emphasis on the astrobiology part of our program, which spans beyond even planetary science, and is increasingly becoming an important part of NASA’s work,” she said.

“We’re also placing explicit emphasis on our planetary defense program, which over the last few years has grown,” she added. Planetary defense, which includes both the search for potential hazardous objects and studies of ways to mitigate any threats they pose, has become a significant part of NASA’s overall planetary science program, with an annual budget of $150 million.

Other changes in the upcoming decadal include directly linking recommended missions to scientific goals and objectives and “decision rules” to adjust plans if budgets change or if there are new discoveries and technology developments. The study will also examine how planetary science can benefit from NASA’s human exploration plans, as well as a section on the “state of the profession” similar to one that is part of the ongoing astrophysics decadal.

The SSB will soon start soliciting nominations for people to serve on the steering committee for the decadal as well as white papers on various planetary science topics that the community believes should be considered by the survey. The committee’s first meeting is tentatively scheduled for June, said David Smith, study director for the decadal at the SSB, but could be delayed to July or August.

NASA is funding the survey, with that funding making its way through NASA’s procurement bureaucracy to the SSB. Work on the survey will formally begin when that funding is in hand, said Colleen Hartman, director of the SSB.

NASA and the SSB had planned to kick off the decadal survey with an in-person town hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC). However, that conference, scheduled for the week of March 16, was canceled earlier in the month because of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing them to hold the event online instead.

That town hall was also going to announce the chair of the decadal survey steering committee. Hartman said that had been delayed slightly because of disruptions associated with the pandemic, including the closure of universities that are forcing researchers being considered for the position to shift to working at and teaching from home. “Some of the most critical people” being considered for the position are at universities, she said. “Many of them right now are dealing with their academic population being sent off campus.”

Despite current disruptions, the SSB said the goal remains to have the decadal survey completed by and unveiled at the LPSC in March 2022.

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...