March 8, 2011

Report: NASA Should Focus On Mars, Europa Missions

Unmanned missions to Mars and one of Jupiter's moons should be the top priorities for the American space program starting in 2013, a team of experts said on Monday.

The National Research Council (NRC) released what Associated Press (AP) reporters have dubbed a "wish list" of missions that NASA should prioritize in the decade running 2013 through 2022.

The study, which was sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), polled experts and asked them to recommend possible small, medium, and large-scale missions while taking under consideration the space agency's budget projections for each fiscal year.

"Our recommendations are science-driven, and they offer a balanced mix of missions"¦ that have the potential to greatly expand our knowledge of the solar system," Committee Chair and Cornell University Astronomy Professor Steven W. Squyres said in a statement. "However, in these tough economic times, some difficult choices may have to be made.  With that in mind, our priority missions were carefully selected based on their potential to yield the most scientific benefit per dollar spent."

Topping the list of the large-scale missions recommended by the panel is a robotic mission to Mars to determine whether or not the planet was ever able to support life, as well as to study its geologic and climatic history, the NRC said in a press release Monday.

"This mission will be the first step in a multipart effort to eventually return samples from the planet," they said, adding that the proposed joint NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) mission should only be pursued if the cost can be reduced by $1 billion, to $2.5 billion.

Second-highest priority should be given to visiting Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter that the NRC calls "one of the most promising environments in the solar system for supporting life," and third-highest priority was assigned to orbiter and probe missions to study the structure, atmosphere, and composition of Uranus.

As with the Mars mission, however, the panel noted that the missions should only be considered if financial considerations would allow for them.

"For medium-size missions, the report recommends that NASA select two new missions to be included in its New Frontiers program, which explores the solar system with frequent, mid-size spacecraft missions," the NRC said.

"Since its inception in 2003, the program has initiated two missions and is in the process of selecting a third," they added. "The committee recommends that NASA also select a fourth and fifth mission in the 2013-2023 time frame and identifies several candidates from which NASA could choose, but does not prioritize them.  Instead, selection should be based on competitive peer review."

Missions involving human space flight were not considered by the review board.

According to the NRC press release, the report also states that "if NASA's budget over that decade cannot support all of these missions, the agency should preserve smaller scale missions in its New Frontiers and Discovery programs first and delay some or all of the recommended large-scale missions."


On the Net: