8 March 2011
Last night Steve Squyres unveiled the results of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey. The decadal is a massive document used to chart the course of planetary science for the next ten years, and it drew a huge crowd here at the conference. This decadal was different from previous ones because it specifically was tasked with coming up with a list of missions that would be achievable with the funding available (as projected from the time the survey was begun, a couple years ago). This meant that the big missions came with a price tag, and the major take-home message from the announcement was that the next big Mars mission: a rover that would cache samples for return to earth on a future mission, will need to cut about a billion dollars in costs to get it to a still-pricey $2.5 billion. If that can’t be done – no major new mars missions! Likewise, the Jupiter Europa Orbiter got saddled with an enormous predicted cost, and would have to descope to save several billion dollars to be affordable.
Still, the survey lists some very cool other missions, like a Uranus system orbiter or a Venus lander, and Squyres pointed out that two of the most successful planetary missions ever – Voyager and Magellan – were both “descoped” missions. So all hope is not lost. Unless, that is, the current “notional” budget that was just proposed by the White House and OMB for the next 5 years comes to pass. That budget shows some really severe cuts in planetary exploration, and if it is passed, it would essentially spell the end of flagship-class missions.
If you want to dive into the details, you can read the Decadal report right here. I think I am going to try to read one chapter per week and blog it here, as a way to motivate myself to read and digest the whole report. So, stay tuned and we’ll work our way through the decadal survey together and talk about what it means.