Decade of Planetary Science Approves Mars Sample Return, Outer Planet Missions

WASHINGTON — A study outlining planetary science priorities for the next decade supports continued efforts to return samples from Mars while recommending NASA pursue missions to the planet Uranus and an icy moon of Saturn.

The final report of the 10-year survey of planetary sciences, compiled by a committee of national academies and released April 19, also recommended work on a space telescope to track near-Earth objects, a Mars lander to search for evidence of life and a lunar rover to collect samples that would be returned by astronauts.

“This report presents an ambitious yet achievable vision for advancing the frontiers of planetary science, astrobiology and planetary defense over the next decade,” said Robin Canup, Co-Chair of the Decadal Survey Steering Committee. and assistant vice president of planetary sciences. management of the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement on the decade.

The previous Planetary Science Decade in 2011 recommended as its highest priority, or flagship mission, a Mars rover to collect samples to return to Earth. NASA implemented this recommendation as part of the Mars 2020 mission, whose Perseverance rover is now on Mars collecting samples.

Decade recommends NASA pursue later phases of Mars Sample Return (MSR), which involve missions jointly developed with the European Space Agency to collect these samples, launch them into orbit around Mars, and return them to Earth at the start. of the 2030s.

“The highest scientific priority for NASA’s robotic exploration efforts this decade should be the completion of sample return to Mars as soon as possible, without increasing or decreasing its current range,” the report said. .

He cautioned, however, about the potential growth in costs, citing a current estimate of $5.3 billion for the overall effort to return samples to Mars, a figure that NASA had not yet made public. The cost of MSR “should not be allowed to undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio,” the report said, recommending that NASA seek a “budget increase” from Congress if its costs increase by 20% or more above this estimate.

The Decade treated Mars separately from other proposed flagship missions. The report recommended as a leading flagship mission concept the Uranus orbiter and probe, which would enter orbit to study the planet, its rings and moons, as well as deploy a probe into the planet’s atmosphere. Uranus has only been visited by spacecraft once, the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986.

The mission “will transform our knowledge of ice giants in general and the Uranian system in particular,” the report said, calling Uranus “one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system.” The mission, estimated to cost $4.2 billion, could be launched as early as 2031 on a Falcon Heavy or similar heavy-lift vehicle, arriving at Uranus 13 years later using gravity-assist Jupiter .

The decade’s recommended flagship second-tier mission was Enceladus Orbilander, which would fly a spacecraft to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, an icy world with a subterranean ocean and plumes bursting through its crust into space. “The conditions at Enceladus thus allow direct investigation of the habitability of an ocean world and an assessment of whether or not it is inhabited,” the report said.

Enceladus Orbilander would spend a year and a half in orbit around Enceladus and sample these plumes before landing on a two-year mission to study materials for evidence of life. The mission, estimated to cost $4.9 billion, could be launched in the late 2030s on an SLS or Falcon Heavy with a landing in the early 2050s.

The report looked at four other flagship mission concepts: a Europa lander, a Mercury lander, a Neptune orbiter and probe, and a Venus mission comprising orbiters, a lander and an “aerobot” that would operate in the planet’s atmosphere. . The 10-Year Survey declined to endorse them due to issues such as cost and technological readiness.

New Frontiers, Mars and the Moon

The 10-year survey selected potential destinations for future missions in NASA’s New Frontiers line of mid-size planetary science missions. For the New Frontiers 6 mission at the end of that decade, she came up with concepts that include a mission to a Centaur, a family of icy bodies orbiting between Jupiter and Neptune; a mission to return samples from Ceres, the largest body in the main asteroid belt; a comet sample return mission; a spacecraft to perform several flybys of Enceladus; a network of lunar landers to collect geophysical data; a Saturn probe; a Titan orbiter; and a mission to perform in situ studies of the atmosphere of Venus.

The next New Frontiers contest, likely to take place in the early to mid-2030s, would include these same mission themes except for the one selected for New Frontiers 6, and add a mission to Neptune’s largest moon, Triton . The report also recommended that the cost cap for New Frontiers missions be increased to $1.65 billion (in fiscal year 2025 dollars) to reflect an experiment such as the Dragonfly mission to Titan under development.

For Mars, the 10-year survey recommended that once MSR passed the peak of its spending profile in the late 2020s, NASA begin work on a lander mission called Mars Life Explorer that would seek evidence of current life on Mars by drilling into ice deposits to search for biosignatures. The lander, described as a “notional mission concept” in the report, would cost $2.1 billion and be launched in the mid-2030s.

Moon studies, according to the decade, would involve interaction with human exploration with the Artemis series of crewed landings scheduled to begin as early as 2025. “The successful integration of science into human exploration programs has always been a challenge and the rest for Artemis,” the report states. “Currently, scientific requirements do not determine Artemis’ capabilities. However, in the opinion of the committee it is imperative that Artemis supports breakthrough science at the decade level.” [Emphasis in original.]

One way to achieve this is to combine robotic and human exploration capabilities. The report endorsed a mission concept called Endurance-A that would send a robotic rover to the south pole of the moon’s Aiken Basin on a commercial lander. The rover would travel 2,000 kilometers through the basin and collect 100 kilograms of samples. These samples would be returned to Earth on a crewed Artemis mission. The $1.9 billion mission would cost $1 billion less than an alternative that involved both a robotic rover and a sample-return spacecraft that would have returned only about two kilograms of material.

Planetary defense and budgets

The Decade of Planetary Science included a review of NASA’s planetary defense programs. He supported continued work to achieve a goal set by Congress in 2005 of discovering 90% of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) at least 140 meters in diameter. He added, however, that NASA should also work to discover as many smaller objects as possible.

The decade backed continued work on the NEO Surveyor mission, calling for a “timely launch” of the space telescope designed to more effectively search for near-Earth objects. The recommendation comes weeks after the agency’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal cut the mission’s budget, pushing back its planned 2026 launch by at least two years.

After NEO Surveyor, the decade recommended NASA pursue a “rapid response” mission to fly past a near-Earth object between 50 and 100 meters in diameter. “Such a mission should assess the capabilities and limitations of overflight characterization methods to better prepare for a short-warning NEO threat,” he said.

To take into account all its recommendations, the ten-year survey proposed two budget profiles. A “level program” assumes a 2% annual growth in NASA’s planetary science budget from 2023 to 2032, while the “recommended program” would increase overall spending over the decade by 17.5%. This latest profile “captures the community’s highest priorities as outlined in this report and is both uplifting and inspirational,” the report said.

Both profiles would fully fund Mars Sample Return and the other ongoing flagship mission, Europa Clipper, as well as planetary defense, lunar exploration programs and the Discovery range of relatively inexpensive planetary missions. The recommended program provides additional funding for research and the New Frontiers line of missions. The recommended program would fully fund the flagship Uranus mission for a launch in the early 2030s and begin work on the Enceladus Orbilander, while the level program would push the Uranus mission back to the late 2030s and provide no funding for the Enceladus mission.

“In summary, the reductions associated with the Level program would result in a less balanced portfolio with significantly lower scientific output compared to the recommended program,” the report states.

Like the 10-year survey of astrophysics published last November, the 10-year survey of planetary sciences included an assessment of the “state of the profession”. The report recommended actions to gather more demographic information about the planetary science community, expand opportunities and combat bias, such as asking NASA to implement codes of conduct for its missions and for the conferences it attends. participate.

“While scientific understanding is the primary motivation for what our community does, we must also work to boldly address issues concerning our community’s most important resource, the people who power its missions of planetary science and exploration. “said Philip Christensen, a planetary at Arizona State University. science professor and fellow co-chair of the decennial survey steering committee. “Ensuring broad access and participation in the field is essential to maximizing scientific excellence and preserving the nation’s continued leadership in space exploration.”

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