Space & Planetary Science: March 2008 Archives

SMD Update

NASA Weathers Departure, Rumors of Budget Cuts, NPR

"Audio for this story will be available at approx. 6:00 p.m. ET

Talk of the Nation, March 28, 2008 - Planetary scientist Alan Stern has announced that he is stepping down as NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, the head role in the space agency's science programs. His departure was unexpected, and the agency gave no reason for the sudden departure."

Editor's note: SMD Chief Scientist John Mather announced this [Wednesday] morning that he is going back to his JWST job full time.

Editor's update: Anyone who seeks to connect the dots, so to speak, and think that John Mather's decision has anything to do with Alan Stern's decision to leave would be incorrect.

Mapping Titan

A Vector Map of the Unnamed Methane Sea on Titan,

"Peter Minton is a California teacher who loves to make vector maps in his spare time. His favorite places to map are islands and coastlines, and so when the Cassini-Huygens probe sent back images from Saturn's moon Titan he was happy to discover the geographical features he loves most. There, on the pole of Titan, was a sea full of islands. An unnamed methane sea, but still mappable using vectoring software. This is the map he created, with longitude and latitude lines."

NASA Administrator Announces Science Mission Directorate Leadeship Changes

"NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin issued the following statement Wednesday regarding the announcement that Dr. S. Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, has decided to leave the agency."

From: Stern, Alan (HQ-DA000): "SMD Colleagues-- Yesterday I offered and Mike Griffin reluctantly accepted my resignation as Associate Administrator. Mike will shortly be naming an interim AA. I will remain at NASA for a few weeks. It's been my privilege to serve the NASA and the scientific community, and to work with you. I also want you to know that Mike and I remain on good terms. He remains in my eyes the best Administrator NASA has ever had."

From an internal email by "Today Alan Stern announced that he had resigned his position as AA. In his talk to the Science Mission Directorate he said that the management issues were about cost control and that he did not see a way for him to do what needs to be done. He didn't go into details. Evidently there are extremely strong opinions about all this. ... Staff reaction to the resignation was I think a bit of a shock and a great sense of loss. Alan brought a breath of fresh air and a new spirit to the organization that was a lot of fun for me to share."

Editor's note: Mike Griffin seems to have an uncanny ability to cause anyone with talent, energy, and dedication to walk away from NASA. This departure by Alan Stern is troubling - no, it is downright depressing. Indeed, I think it clearly signals the end of Mike Griffin's ability to credibly manage the agency.

Comments? Send them to Your responses thus far:

NASA cut means no roving for Mars rover, AP

"Scientists plan to put one of the twin Mars rovers to sleep and limit the activities of the other robot to fulfill a NASA order to cut $4 million from the program's budget, mission team members said Monday."

Mixed signals from NASA about fate of Mars rover, CNN

"There is a process that has to be followed for any mission to be canceled and the cancellation of the Mars Exploration Rovers is not under consideration," Jacobs said. "There is an ongoing budget review within the agency's Mars exploration program. However, shutting down of one of the rovers is not an option."

Editor's note: JPL is spinning this as if Spirit is being put to death as an innocent victim. It is already in hibernation for the winter and will stay that way for quite some time. Even if it was fully active its ability to do meaningful science is all but at an end - and its useful lifetime has vastly exceeded everyone's wildest expectations. [note: I will admit that I was a little harsh on Spirit's lack of usefulness. It is just sad that JPL is holding it hostage in order to make its political points]

Meanwhile, yet another outrageous cost overrun on MSL due to JPL's bad management has forced NASA to cough up $200 million in an attempt to fix things. If keeping a hobbled rover, as spunky and adorable as it is, alive is that important you'd think that JPL could find a way to work that $4 million out of the $200 million they have all but extorted from NASA HQ.

Moreover, given that they screwed up, you'd think they'd dip into the fee (i.e. their profit) that they get from their contract to NASA. But no, JPL only knows how to stick their hand out - and not into their own pocket.

That said, the rovers are still an astonishing investment that can be capitalized on for mere peanuts - its just a shame that JPL has let the situation stoop to this new low and allows the rovers to be held hostage.

Some folks mumble behind the scenes that HQ forced JPL into the situation it now finds itself in. All I can offer is to ask what this says about JPL's ability to understand the real cost of its programs. Moreover, it speaks volumes as to the lengths JPL will go to get missions including looking the other way when they know that the numbers don't add up.

Stay tuned. I am certain that Lou Friedman and the Planetary Society will soon sound off on Pasadena-centric Mars politics once again.

Comments? Send them to Your comments thus far:

NASA Request for Information: New Science Investigations Using Existing NASA Spacecraft

"NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) currently sponsors approximately 85 flight missions, involving over 90 spacecraft, divided between missions in development and missions in operations. One of SMD's programmatic objectives is to maximize the science return for the Nation within the available budget. This Request for Information (RFI) solicits input from the broad space science community that would contribute to NASA's study of possible new uses for current NASA spacecraft beyond their current missions. Responses to this RFI (NNH08ZDA005L) will be used to inform NASA's program planning."

House Science and Technology Subcommittee Expresses Concern over Budgetary Outlook for NASA Science Programs

"Added Udall, "NASA's challenging new science initiatives are to be built on a budget that increases by only 1% through FY11, and that assumes only inflationary increases at best in the years beyond that. There will be little new money--instead, there will be a continuing need to transfer of funds across the science accounts to support each new initiative--an approach some might call 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'. I'm very concerned that such an approach will not prove sustainable or credible."

Witnesses: FY 2009 NASA Science Budget Makes Best of Limited Resources

Statement of Alan Stern
Statement of Jack Burns
Statement of Berrien Moore
Statement of Lennard Fisk
Statement of Steven Squyres

Editor's note: According to NASA sources Cassini's flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus occurred today around noon Pacific time.

As scheduled, no contact was made with the spacecraft until around 7:00 PM PST today. Science data collection was been completed and Cassini has reoriented itself so as to point at Earth and play back the data that was collected. This playback will continue until tomorrow afternoon.

Early science results may be available Thursday afternoon.

A Letter to Rep. Adam Schiff on the Mars Exploration Program, Planetary Society

"We support the new proposed direction for Mars sample return proposed by NASA. But it is being offered with no funds in the next five years."

Editor's 3 March 2008 note: NASA has set aside $68 million for Mars Sample Return mission studies so Friedman's claim is demonstrably wrong - as are many other things in this letter (what else is new?) Stay tuned.

Editor's 10 March 2008 note: Have a look at this presentation from the LSPC and some of the disinformation that is being sewn regarding SMD projects: Mars Program Myth Busters (PDF), SMD

Interesting Neighbors?

Alpha Centauri should harbor detectable, Earth-like planets, according to new study by UC Santa Cruz astronomers

"A rocky planet similar to Earth may be orbiting one of our nearest stellar neighbors and could be detected using existing techniques, according to a new study led by astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The closest stars to our Sun are in the three-star system called Alpha Centauri, a popular destination for interstellar travel in works of science fiction."

NASA Mars Exploration Rover Update March 3, 2008

"Spirit has achieved a northerly tilt of 29.9 degrees! As a result, based on power projections, Spirit has a fighting chance of surviving another winter on Mars, if the weather and environment cooperate. Plans for sol 1471 (Feb. 22, 2008) called for a test of the stability of Spirit's new perch prior to using the rock abrasion tool by having the rover touch the Martian surface with the Moessbauer spectrometer and apply 10 newtons of pressure (called a pre-load)."

Avalanches on Mars

NASA Spacecraft Photographs Avalanches on Mars, NASA

"A NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mars has taken the first ever image of active avalanches near the Red Planet's north pole. The image shows tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, where ice and dust have just cascaded down. ing Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took the photograph Feb. 19. It is one of approximately 2,400 HiRISE images being released today."



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This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from March 2008.

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