NASA hedges its bets on Curiosity and the Post-Shuttle Future

The Curiosity rover being installed inside its atmospheric entry capsule. Credit: NASA/ Glen Benson October 2011

It’s shaping up to be an important week for NASA.  Their Mars Curiosity Rover should be touching dirt in Gale Crater by 0631 BST Monday.  It’s a powerful beast, carrying about 10 times as much mass as its ancestors, powered by a plutonium-238 thermoelectric power generator.  It will combine the camera mounts, six-wheel drive and suspension technology inherited from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers with the ability to conduct onboard sample analysis, scooping up Martian soil and carrying out a series of tests for organic compounds.  It will even be able to use a laser to vapourise rocks and study the remains, continually improving our understanding of Mars as a potential ancient habitat.

This is no mean feat – just getting a monster the size of Curiosity to the surface requires a finessed landing process.  Previous landers have used airbags to soften the impact of landings, but Curiosity is too massive for that.  This problem is exacerbated by Mars’ thin atmosphere, providing little air resistance to the capsule hurtling toward the surface.  An innovative “sky crane” landing system will require the capsule to slow to a hover above the surface, and then slowly deploy Curiosity to the surface by means of an umbilical tether.

Curiosity being deployed via the sky-crane. Credit: NASA

Despite such an ambitious plan to reach the Martian surface, NASA have set their mission objectives a little lower than perhaps expected.  With such a formidable rover roaming around Gale Crater, it would not have been surprising to hear NASA claim they were searching for living organisms.  Instead, they modestly hope to find “the ingredients for life”, a much more likely outcome given the lack of subsurface aquifers originally thought to be there.  Previous missions tried and failed to find the aquifers, now consigned to the same dustbin as Schiaparelli’s canals.

This throttled-back candour seems to be reflected in all of NASA’s recent decisions.  With budgets in seemingly interminable flux, and each administration dreaming of unrealistic resurrection of the manned space program, the agency has been forced to box clever as of late.  It is still licking its wounds from the JWST budget scandal, as well as the less public academic backlash from the media circus surrounding missions such as Kepler (see e.g. here).

They have the misfortune of two quite disparate audiences to manage expectations for – the nonspecialists, who fund it, and the scientific community, who drive its scientific aims and clarify its most important tasks.  Each has their own aims and agenda, and each are disappointed when things “go wrong” according to their beliefs as to what “going right” is.

In this thorny environment, NASA’s recent decision to open up manned spaceflight to the private sector is an attempt to walk a difficult tightrope.  Outsourcing the cost of the post-Shuttle crew vehicle design and construction is a tick in the box for an impoverished electorate who wish to rein in expenditure in tough times.

SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule in the robot arm grapple of the International Space Station, prior to docking

Scientists will be mollified by the choices of outsourcing.  SpaceX’s Dragon (above) has already demonstrated its crew vehicle in an unmanned mission to the International Space Station earlier this year; Boeing’s track record in spaceflight goes all the way back to Apollo; and Sierra Nevada is the inheritor of a previous NASA mini-shuttle design.  These three choices are the end of a shortlisting process, with many losers having to go it alone with “commercial” intentions, including Blue Origins, a startup from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

This cautious, softly-softly approach is to be welcomed in these difficult times.  Funding is evanescent in these times, and developing missions with achievable, yet still laudable goals is important.  Better still, use the resources in the private sector rather than compete with them.

It’s hardly the “to boldly go” statements that get scientists into the field, but some necessary realpolitik.  Goose chases (however fun) are frowned upon by people with bags of money.  And no, the irony of that last statement is not lost on me 🙂

James Webb Space Telescope Funding to be Terminated

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is close to losing all its funding.  The fiscal year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, being considered by the US government’s House Appropriation Committee (see the release here), is to recommend $1.6 billion dollar cuts to the total NASA budget, with about half a billion disappearing from its Science programs.

Image Credit: NASA

Of course, we have to remember these aren’t 100% confirmed, but why announce something so controversial if you’re not pretty sure about it? After all, part of the bill provisions include the prohibition of prisoner transfer from Guantanamo to US soil, so you’d be pretty sure about making statements of that ilk.

Perhaps lobbying from the astronomy community will mellow things somewhat, but what are the alternatives? JWST is pretty ambitious (its mirror is too big to be launched fully open, and must be assembled in orbit at L2 to within millimetre accuracy).  It’s also about four times over-budget, and behind schedule (note the image says 2013 – current scheduling puts it at 2018).  Cuts are required all over the place (NASA’s not the only one to feel the pinch, if you read the rest of the release).  As astronomers, we have to ensure that lawmakers understand the associated costs with cancelling JWST.

The costs to scientific progress are obvious – JWST was to be a game-changer in many aspects of astronomy.  In my field of expertise, it was to revolutionise the study of protostellar discs and star formation in general, being able to peer through the dust that enshrouds these objects at early times, and help detect planets around other stars at brightnesses 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble.  All the hard work of Kepler, Spitzer and Herschel would be built on by JWST’s observations.

Closer to home, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh are building the Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI) for JWST.  Without a telescope to put it on, what will they do?

And they’re not alone – there are several instruments being built for JWST by European and Canadian agencies.  Cancellation leaves these groups with an uncertain future.

All in all, it is a saddening (if not unexpected) development.  Astronomy has been struggling with funding issues in various countries for the last few years now – with every telescope that fails to be built, niches for astronomers and astrophysicists disappear, and the whole community suffers as a result.  JWST was considered to be something of a flagship mission – without the flagship, who shall lead the fleet now? Both American and European astronomers will have to box clever to safeguard future science (and future scientists).

If you want to help, join the newly-minted #saveJWST hashtag on Twitter!

NASA Successfully Deploys Solar Sails on Low Earth Orbit

It’s easy for news like this to get lost in the tumult of global politics, but let me leave the discussion of Egypt and Tunisia to the better-informed and tell you about some interesting astro-news.  NASA has successfully deployed Nano-Sail D (below), a 100 square foot solar sail in low Earth Orbit. The success of the mission was confirmed by amateur radio operators, who detected its signal beacon at 437.270 MHz. This success follows in the footsteps of the groundbreaking IKAROS mission, which deployed the first ever functioning solar sail to propel it towards Venus, where it flew by last month.

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