// Internet is being an ass. I guess it’s time to crank out another essay.
# me when i get to hell
Reappearances of the Fourth Doctor’s Scarf
Which mission should we shut down?
On Tuesday, the heads of the NASA Planetary Sciences program held a townhall meeting regarding their funding situation and a restructuring underway for the program.
Planetary Science at NASA has taken hit after hit over the last 5 years as federal budgets have stagnated and been cut. Now these cuts are large enough that, barring changes, one of these 2 missions will shut down.
When planetary missions are budgeted, they create a budget to launch and operate the mission during its “prime” phase, during which it should be able to accomplish its mission goals. But often, the spacecraft are so well built that they can last for years, even decades longer. Since you can’t predict how long the spacecraft will last or what instruments might become useful after a new scientific discovery, this part of the mission isn’t funded when the mission is proposed.
Basically, it doesn’t make sense to fund an extended mission until you know the spacecraft is healthy enough for an extended mission. When a spacecraft is healthy enough for a long-term mission, NASA’s Planetary program generally funds it on a yearly basis, depending on spacecraft health.
However, this setup is leading to a disaster next year. The major extended mission right now being funded is Cassini. That wonderful spacecraft was launched way back in the late 1990’s and is still doing great science today. Literally thousands of papers have been published using data from Cassini and the spacecraft is still working well; it has enough power to keep operating at full capacity for another 5 years and could live on longer than that with some instruments shut down. The seasons are changing on Saturn right now; this is our first look at the start of northern-hemisphere summer, a chance to watch the environment change on one of the most mysterious bodies in the solar system. The Cassini mission, over the next few years, should continue to do wonderful science.
But next year, it starts having competition. The prime mission for the Curiosity Rover was 2 years after landing. That rover landed in the summer of 2012…meaning the Curiosity Rover is only funded for operations through 2014. To keep that rover operating…there will need to be new funding for continuing operations.
Each of these missions will cost just over $50 million to continue full operations. That amount is small of course compared to the multi-billion dollar cost of launching…but that doesn’t matter to the current situation.
As a consequence of the budget cuts known as Sequestration…NASA’s budget has been hammered, cut by more than 10%. To protect other priorities like the International Space Station and the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Planetary program has taken an even larger hit. Those cuts will be even larger next year.
If the budgetary situation does not improve, NASA will not have the funding to operate both of these spacecraft next year. One of them will have to be shut down.
Cassini is the obvious candidate since it’s been operating longer.
Alternatively, the Planetary program could possibly find the funds to keep it running…if they stopped paying for scientists to look at the data…in which case you might as well shut it down anyway because the data become useless. To some extent this has already happened – there have been huge cuts in the available funds to do research on data returning from spacecraft already, but another $50+ million in cuts would pretty much shut down “science” in this program.
This problem isn’t going to change on its own. If the budgetary situation stays as it is right now, more than likely, Cassini will be shut down this year because we can’t afford to keep it running.
The U.S. Congress right now is working on budget discussions which will determine whether or not the situation does stay as it currently stands.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons 1, 2
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// asdfghjkl thanks so much Anonny. ;A;
// I wish I was smart enoigh to be a physicist because I fucking love space and astronomy.
Dark matter and universes is best.
// The guest speaker keeps mentioning physics and I just Doctor Who.