Space & Planetary Science: October 2008 Archives

Viewing NASA's Mars Budget with Resignation (Letter by Alan Stern), Science

""I would like to clarify several points in the News of the Week story (26 September, p. 1754) by A. Lawler, "Rising costs could delay NASA's next mission to Mars and future launches."

When the National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey recommended the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission for priority funding, it assigned a cost level of $650 million. This value, rather than $1.4 billion, is the true metric for seeing the deep damage that MSL's profligately overrunning cost--now likely to top $2.1 billion--has inflicted on NASA's Mars and wider planetary science budget.

Also, the story focused its overrun discussion on instrument costs. Although certainly part of the problem, instrument cost increases have been considerably smaller than overruns in the rest of MSL's budget, which was severely mismatched to the project's complexity from its inception. This mismatch sowed the most fundamental seeds of MSL's cost problems."

NASA Mars Phoenix Mission Status Report 30 October 2008

"Phoenix communicated with NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter Thursday. The communication reinforced a diagnosis that the spacecraft is in a precautionary mode triggered by low energy. Mission engineers are assessing the lander's condition and steps necessary for returning to science operations."

MarsPhoenix Twitter: "Take care of that beautiful blue marble out there in space, our home planet. Ill be keeping an eye from here. Space exploration FTW!"

Veronica McGregor Twitter, JPL PAO: "Ah, just when you think it's all over, the 'sick child' phones home. Nice to know @marsphoenix is still trying, exceeding expectations."

Phoenix Enters Safe Mode

NASA'S Phoenix Mars Lander Enters Safe Mode

"NASA'S Phoenix Mars Lander entered safe mode late yesterday in response to a low-power fault brought on by deteriorating weather conditions. While engineers anticipated that a fault could occur due to the diminishing power supply, the lander also unexpectedly switched to the "B" side of its redundant electronics and shut down one of its two batteries. During safe mode, the lander stops non-critical activities and awaits further instructions from the mission team."

NASA Mars Phoenix Mission Faces Survival Challenges

"Originally scheduled to last 90 days, Phoenix has completed a fifth month of exploration in the Martian arctic. As expected, with the Martian northern hemisphere shifting from summer to fall, the lander is generating less power due to shorter days and fewer hours of sunlight reaching its solar panels.

At the same time, the spacecraft requires more power to run several survival heaters that allow it to operate even as temperatures decline."

Editor's note: Two videos are now online. One shows the launch of Chandaryaan-1. The other provdes a mission overview.

Videos below

India Heads For The Moon

PSLV-C11 Successfully Launches Chandrayaan-1, ISRO

"In its fourteenth flight conducted from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) SHAR, Sriharikota this morning (October 22, 2008), the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO's) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-C11, successfully launched the 1380 kg Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft into a transfer orbit with a perigee (nearest point to Earth) of 255 km and an apogee (farthest point to Earth) of 22,860 km, inclined at an angle of 17.9 deg to the equator."

India Aims for the Moon, Air & Space Magazine

"Paul Spudis, a noted U.S. planetary geologist with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, is blogging the launch of India's first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, which lifted off early Wednesday morning from India's east coast."

Follow Chandrayaan-1 on Twitter

Editor's note: I went over to the Udvar Hazy Annex of the National Air and Space Museum this evening for a reception honoring the New Horizons Mission. Specifically, the reception honored the placing of a high fidelity model of the New Horizons spacecraft in the museum - now suspended from the ceiling, aft of Space Shuttle Enterprise.

During the dedication ceremony, we all learned from PI Alan Stern that the spacecraft was carrying a number of items, some of which had previously not been formally announced: some of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh's ashes, state quarters from Maryland and Florida, two CDs - one with over 400,000 names - the other with family photos of the New Horizons team, the US postal service stamp from 1991 saying "not yet explored", a concept design for another stamp noting the New Horizons mission, and a piece of Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One.

Listening to the various presentations, it was quite clear that this was a family endeavor - as well as an endeavor of families - and generations. The people who worked long hours on this mission needed support from their families - while younger mission personnel are being groomed to be involved in 2015 - and beyond - when New Horizons reaches its prime target - and possibly future targets during extended mission operations. New Horizons is perhaps the first purposefully multi-generational space mission, the twin Voyagers having unexpectedly blazed that trail by virtue of good design and immense ingenuity.

Europe delays its ExoMars mission, BBC

"The ExoMars rover, which will search for signs of life on the Red Planet, will not now launch until 2016 because of the high cost of the project. The 1.2bn-euro price tag is deemed to be too high by governments, and space officials have been asked to find ways to reduce it.

One option may be to try to get greater involvement - financial and technical - from the Americans and the Russians."

1,000 Days Closer To Pluto

NASA New Horizons: The PI's Perspective 1,000 Days on the Road to Pluto

"It's hard to believe, but Oct. 15 will be the 1,000th day of flight for New Horizons. And in that time we've traveled so far that only four other spacecraft - Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 - have ventured farther. Can you believe it's been this long? Sometimes it seems so, but other times, it seems like we just blasted off from Florida on that cool afternoon of Jan. 19, 2006."

According to the NewHorizons2015 Twitter: "At 1400 Eastern tomorrow we begin our 1000th day of flight. Onward, onward now, ever toward the frontier!"

MSL Cost Overrun Status and Plans, Presentation at the Planetary Science Subcommittee
James L. Green, Director, Planetary Science Division, October 2, 2008

Solution space -covering pending overrun in FY09
- Approximately $70Mfrom:

  • PSD rephasing LV, reduce carryover, & efficiencies
  • SMD reduce carryover (to be paid back later)

- Delay and/or cancel developing missions:
  • Juno ($160M) delay or cancel -will effect release of NF AO
  • GRAIL ($45M)delay or cancel -will effect next Disco AO
  • LADEE ($21M) delay or cancel
  • NASA instruments on ExoMars ($5M)
  • MAVEN ($2M)

Charts below

Planetary Science Subcommittee Notes, LPI

"The Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) reports to the Science Committee of the NAC. Regular meetings are held for the purpose of soliciting from the scientific community and other persons scientific and technical information relevant to program planning. Presentations from the Subcommittee meetings will be posted on this unofficial site."

Editor's note: Last year, before Ed Weiler came back to NASA Headquarters to be the Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, an internal cost study was done to see how much SMD overruns every year on its various projects and missions. That study showed $5.4 billion of cost increases over a 4 year period. The goal posts for this study involved measuring costs starting from either the cost contained in the FY 2005 budget or, if the project started later, from its Phase B cost. The costing period then extended forward to the amount that it had increased to for the FY 2009 budget submission.

This large lump of overruns did not sit well with Ed Weiler, so he decided to order folks to make it go away. How to do it? Simple: just move the goal posts. In so doing, you use Congressional guidance (Nunn-McCurdy) as a smoke screen to hide the true magnitude of cost increases.

NASA to Provide Mars Science Laboratory Launch Update

"NASA will host a media teleconference at 3 p.m. EDT, Friday, Oct. 10, to brief reporters after a meeting held by the agency's administrator concerning the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL. The meeting is to discuss technical and budget issues."

Editor's note: In other words: "how do we kick the can down the road past the election so that a new Administration can deal with it? There's certainly no one left who cares to answer the phone at The White House any more."

Stay tuned.

NASA MESSENGER Sets Record for Accuracy of Planetary Flyby

"By using solar sailing - rotating the spacecraft and tilting its solar panels to use the very small pressure from sunlight to alter the spacecraft's trajectory - MESSENGER navigators have achieved a new record for the smallest miss distance between the intended and actual closest approach distance during a flyby of a planet other than Earth. On October 6, 2008, the probe flew 199.4 kilometers (123.9 miles) above the surface of the planet. "Our goal was to fly 200 kilometers from the planet's surface, and we missed that target by only 0.6 kilometers," explained MESSENGER Mission Design Lead Jim McAdams."

Mercury Revealed

NASA MESSENGER Image: Mercury as Never Seen Before

"Of Interest: Yesterday, at 4:40 am EDT, MESSENGER successfully completed its second flyby of Mercury. Today, at about 1:50 am EDT, the images taken during the flyby encounter began to be received back on Earth. The spectacular image shown here is one of the first to be returned and shows a WAC image of the departing planet taken about 90 minutes after the spacecraft's closest approach to Mercury. The bright crater just south of the center of the image is Kuiper, identified on images from the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s. For most of the terrain east of Kuiper, toward the limb (edge) of the planet, the departing images are the first spacecraft views of that portion of Mercury's surface. A striking characteristic of this newly imaged area is the large pattern of rays that extend from the northern region of Mercury to regions south of Kuiper."

MESSENGER Instruments Take Aim at Mercury

"The operations team is now preparing for the period of time about an hour prior to closest approach [at 4:40:21 a.m. EDT], when we will be transitioning our support from the Canberra ground station to the Madrid ground station that will capture the flyby," Finnegan said. "High-gain communications with the spacecraft will be re-established on Tuesday at 1:14 a.m. EDT at approximately 52 kilobits per second, and playback of the data stored in the solid-state recorder will start approximately 30 minutes later."

Encounter imaging video below

Mars Science Lab In Doubt, Aviation Week

"Top NASA managers will decide next week the fate of the Mars Science Laboratory, a nuclear-powered astrobiology rover that already has cost $1.5 billion and is likely to hit the 30-percent overrun ceiling that could trigger cancellation by Congress. Officials from the agency's Mars Exploration Program (MEP) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are set to brief Administrator Mike Griffin and Science Associate Administrator Ed Weiler on the program next week."

Rising Costs Could Delay NASA's Next Mission to Mars and Future Launches, Science

"Postponing MSL is a real possibility, and an unfortunate one," says Brown University planetary scientist Jack Mustard, who also chairs NASA's Mars science advisory panel. "A 2-year delay could increase the cost of the mission significantly--and that would come out of the Mars budget." He also fears that this could slow momentum for Mars exploration and jeopardize plans for a 2016 rover and a sample-return mission."

Next-generation adaptive optics produces sharper Jupiter images

"A two-hour observation of Jupiter using an improved technique to remove atmospheric blur has produced the sharpest whole-planet picture ever taken from the ground, according to astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The series of 265 snapshots taken with the help of a prototype Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics (MCAO) instrument mounted on the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) revealed changes over the past three years in Jupiter's smog-like haze, probably a response to a planet-wide upheaval more than a year ago."



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