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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report FIGURE 5.1 Scientists begin analysis of the cometary particles returned to Earth from the Stardust mission. SOURCE: NASA.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report 5 Research and Analysis, Planetary Astronomy, and Flight Mission Data Analysis RESEARCH AND ANALYSIS The NASA research and analysis (R&A) program and the various data analysis programs (DAPs) help to ensure maximum scientific return from the operating missions and help prepare the science foundation for future NASA missions. Many of the current missions are based on the results of individual R&A or DAP grants from the past. For example, the New Horizons mission, now on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, was based on two decades of ground-based observations and detailed theoretical analysis and modeling, which were funded primarily by several NASA R&A programs. The Stardust mission, which had been started as a NASA-funded R&A program to study interplanetary dust particles in the laboratory, greatly extended the scope of analysis of extraterrestrial materials. Research and Analysis, Planetary Astronomy, Flight Mission Data Analysis OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Grade: C Trend: A vigorous and healthy R&A grants program is essential for the continued overall vitality and productivity of NASA science in the coming decades. Thus, the committee concluded that the first New Frontiers decadal survey recommendation below pertaining to overall research and analysis funding is of far more importance than any of the other R&A-related recommendations;1 the grade for progress toward this one recommendation therefore heavily affects the committee’s overall assessment of NASA’s response to the decadal survey recommendations pertaining to research and analysis. The committee awarded NASA a grade of C with a downward trend primarily on the basis of its R&A grants program; only a significant improvement in this area will reverse the overall trend. The committee notes that NASA could substantially improve several low grades with relatively little effort and expenditure. For instance, it would be easy for the agency to improve the visibility of its fellowships program and to establish formal contacts with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The committee was also informed that it should be relatively easy for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to be adapted to provide at least some capability to track solar system objects. The committee also offers several recommendations for minor improvements to otherwise healthy efforts in data archiving. 1 National Research Council, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey recommends an increase over the decade in the funding for fundamental research and analysis programs at a rate above inflation that parallels the increase in the number of missions, amount of data, and diversity of objects studied.” (p. 9) Grade: C Trend: NASA’s immediate response in fiscal year (FY) 2003 to FY 2005 to this decadal survey recommendation was laudable, with an increase in the R&A budget from a base of 12 percent of a Solar System Division budget of $1.204 billion in FY 2003 to a maximum of 14 percent of the solar system exploration budget of $1.417 billion in FY 2005.2 This was exactly the type of action recommended by the decadal survey. However, the situation changed dramatically in FY 2006 with significant across-the-board cuts to all R&A programs and a 50 percent cut to astrobiology research funding. These funding reductions in the Planetary Science Division have had serious negative impacts on research activities. While R&A funding actually kept pace with the rate of inflation over the 5-year interval from FY 2003 to FY 2007, it has not kept pace with the number of missions, amounts of data, and diversity of objects studied. The situation in astrobiology has been a particular problem. In some years, proposals were selected for funding but were never actually funded. In other years, no solicitations for new proposals were issued. In FY 2006, astrobiology research was reduced by 50 percent. This had a serious adverse impact on the training and support of students (graduate and postdoctoral) and, if sustained, could lead to established scientists turning their efforts to other scientific endeavors.3 These large fluctuations in funding levels can seriously endanger the training of the next generations of scientists in this burgeoning field. For those who rely on continuing support for their astrobiology research activities, these funding fluctuations cause a loss of continuity in their research efforts that is both inefficient and damaging. Whereas engineers can easily transfer to other projects, scientists who do not get funding are likely to leave the field entirely. The committee is concerned that NASA made these large cuts without any consultation with the community about what level of funding was necessary to achieve the goals of the decadal survey. If NASA is to restore money to astrobiology research, the agency should consult with the community to develop an understanding of basic needs. The instability of R&A funding is a particular problem for the solar system research community, which has traditionally had a very large percentage of its researchers on “soft money”—that is, grants from government or other organizations. Recommendation: NASA should restore an adequate funding level for astrobiology research, based on consultation with the scientific community, that will lead to the achievement of the goals of the New Frontiers in the Solar System decadal survey. NASA should provide a stable and sustainable funding environment that is adequate to ensure the vitality and continued scientific productivity of all its research and analysis programs. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey encourages NASA to continue the integration of astrobiology science objectives with those of other space science disciplines. Astrobiological expertise should be called upon when identifying optimal mission strategies and design requirements for flight-qualified instruments that address key questions in astrobiology and planetary science.” (pp. 9, 158) Grade: B Trend: The Mars science program has done extremely well in efforts to integrate astrobiology as a central element and thrust of the entire research effort. All of the Mars missions have a strong astrobiological component, and 2 The name of the Solar System Division was changed to Planetary Science Division in 2004. 3 See, for instance, A. Lawler, “Astrobiology Fights for Its Life,” Science 315:318-321, 2007; K. Krajick, “Robot Seeks New Life—and New Funding—in the Abyss of Zacaton,” Science 315:322-324, 2007; A. Lawler, “It Rains in Spain and Wilts in Australia,” Science 315:320, 2007.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report this is also reflected in the Mars-related R&A and DAP efforts. In the other solar system science disciplines, this level of integration has been started but is not nearly at the advanced state that it has reached in the Mars program. For example, astrobiology is a component of research efforts concerning Europa and Titan and is also a major explanation for interest in Enceladus. Recommendation: NASA should continue to work to integrate astrobiology more completely into all solar system science disciplines. New Frontiers Recommendations Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey recommends that well before cosmic materials are returned from planetary missions, NASA should establish a sample-analysis program to support instrument development, laboratory facilities, and the training of researchers.” (p. 9) “The SSE Survey recommends that NASA establish, well before samples are returned from planetary missions, a sample-return program to address analytical and facility issues and the training of researchers in an integrated manner. Such a program will allow focus on the optimization of science and technology resources.” (p. 171) Grade: A Trend: NASA responded well to these recommendations as demonstrated by preparations for Stardust and Genesis samples. This program has been established and running since 2003. In FY 2003, $4 million was awarded in new grants; this amount decreased to $2 million in FY 2004, and to $1.6 million in FY 2005, but rose again to $2.8 million in FY 2006. The Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) 2007 solicitation suggests that $4.0 million will be available for new awards. The grants that were funded in FY 2006 appear to focus on techniques suitable for the analysis of Stardust and Genesis samples. Many of the Stardust and Genesis samples from the Johnson Space Center in Houston have been distributed to the scientific community throughout the country. The committee applauds NASA for accomplishing this in a timely fashion. Decontamination of the Genesis samples will require continuing attention. The Mars Sample Return mission will require robust advance planning and research preparation that should begin within the next 5 years. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “In addition, planetary protection requirements for missions to worlds of biological interest will require investments, as will life-detection techniques, sample quarantine facilities, and sterilization technologies.” (p. 9) Grade: B Trend: NASA has a small planetary protection R&A program that funded 10 new grants from FY 2003 to FY 2006 for a total expenditure of $410,000. The total expenditure for grants has declined from $150,000 in FY 2003 to only $60,000 in FY 2005 and $100,000 in FY 2006. The two grants funded in FY 2005 were targeted to the protection of Earth when new material is returned and the protection of a planet when a spacecraft lands on it. By contrast, the four grants that were awarded in FY 2006 focused on spacecraft testing and decontamination. The committee has concluded that the planetary protection program is prudently using funds in a targeted manner to address specific questions associated with planetary protection. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey recommends the initiation of a program of Planetary Fellows, that is, a postdoctoral program analogous to the Hubble and Chandra fellowships, which have done so much to nurture the next generation of astronomers and astrophysicists.” (p. 164) Grade: C Trend:
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report The committee commends NASA for establishing the Fellowships for Early Career Researchers program, which will contribute significantly to the training of the next generation of planetary scientists. However, few in the intended target community are aware of the program’s existence. It is listed as element C.22 of the ROSES 2007 NASA Research Announcement (NRA), nearly invisible to the graduate and postdoctoral students who are looking for support. At present, proposals for early-career researchers may be submitted to 12 of the 26 solar system-related R&A programs of the ROSES 2007 NRA. Notably missing is the capability to submit early-career research proposals to the New Horizons or Cassini data analysis programs, or to the Origins of Solar Systems program. In order to have the same level of visibility and prestige as the Hubble Fellowships, the program would benefit from being targeted to young researchers, early in their careers, and should be advertised as a postdoctoral fellowship program rather than as an R&A program. For example, it would benefit from being listed on the American Astronomical Society Job Register and in the newsletter of the Division of Planetary Sciences. Brochures or flyers should be sent to all astronomy, planetary science, and planetary geology departments. Recommendation: NASA should improve the visibility of its Fellowships for Early Career Researchers program and advertise it as a postdoctoral program. NASA should also expand the participating research program areas to include origins of solar systems, as well as all appropriate space mission data analysis programs. PLANETARY ASTRONOMY NASA has had a historic tradition of conducting ground-based planetary astronomy. Because missions for solar system exploration are infrequent and expensive, ground-based observations are essential for the support of current missions, particularly during the encounter phase. Such observations are also vital after mission termination, in order to make the best use of the data obtained from the spacecraft. Ground-based observations are also an essential element in planning for future missions. As we move well into the 21st century, the focus of planetary science continues to evolve, but much still depends on the use of ground-based facilities to advance the understanding of the solar system and to focus attention on important scientific questions to be investigated by NASA spacecraft. NASA’s continued support of key facilities enables continued progress in the exploration of the solar system. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey recommends that NASA partner equally with the National Science Foundation to design, build, and operate a survey facility, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) described in Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium, to ensure that LSST’s prime solar system objectives are accomplished.” (pp. 9, 207) Grade: F Trend: The National Science Foundation (NSF) is formulating a project to build the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, now in its early conceptual design phase. NASA has decided, however, not to participate in the project. While it is recognized that equal participation may not have been feasible for any number of valid reasons, some NASA share in the LSST would have been desirable from the perspective of planetary science. NASA’s one-sixth share in the two Keck telescopes has borne fruit for planetary science, and a similar arrangement might have been possible for planetary science in the LSST. It appears that there has been little or no liaison activity between NASA and NSF concerning the LSST, even though there are significant solar system objectives for the telescope. In this early stage, the committee believes that some NASA contact with the LSST project would be helpful, in order to protect the solar system objectives from being compromised inadvertently in the planning, particularly if it becomes necessary to reduce the scope of LSST. Recommendation: NASA should establish formal contacts with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report New Frontiers Recommendations Results of Midterm Review “Other powerful new facilities highlighted in [Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium]—for example, the James Webb Space Telescope (formerly the Next Generation Space Telescope)—should be designed, where appropriate, to be capable of observing moving solar system targets.” (p. 9) “It is noted, however, that using Earth-orbiting facilities for planetary observations imposes special constraints—notably the need to track moving targets—and the SSE Survey endorses the incorporation of this technically difficult but essential capability on all relevant astronomical telescopes.” (p. 166) Grade: F Trend: NASA is currently undertaking a complex and expensive telescope program known as the James Webb Space Telescope and scheduled for launch in 2013 (Figure 5.2). The committee was informed that JWST requirements have never included tracking objects in the solar system. Apparently this recommendation from the solar system decadal survey was never passed on to the NASA Astrophysics Division so that such a capability could have been planned as part of JWST from the inception of the mission. The JWST project is now undertaking an initial study to determine if the telescope can be adapted to track moving solar system targets and to estimate how much this capability may cost. The committee was informed by representatives at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that it may be possible to include such a capability in the telescope by means of software changes and that this would not be prohibitively expensive. Recommendation: NASA should incorporate into the James Webb Space Telescope as quickly as possible the capability to track moving solar system objects. New Frontiers Recommendations Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey recommends that NASA continue to support ground-based observatories for planetary science, including the planetary radar capability at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and at the Deep Space Network’s Goldstone facility in California, the Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and shares of cutting-edge telescopes such as the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, as long as they continue to be critical to missions and/or scientifically productive.” (p. 165) “The SSE Survey recommends that the planetary radar facilities, the Infrared Telescope facility and NASA support for planetary observations at large facilities such as Keck be continued and upgraded as appropriate, for as long as they provide significant scientific return and/or provide mission-critical service.” (p. 206) Grade: B Trend: The NASA Planetary Astronomy Program built the Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea in the 1970s and has operated it ever since to benefit ground-based planetary astronomy investigations. This facility has contributed significantly to our understanding of the solar system. The results from IRTF research have been absolutely crucial for the planning, development, and ongoing support of many of the recent and current NASA missions such as Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons. NASA’s continued support of IRTF will ensure that this very productive relationship between ground-based and spacecraft research will continue into the future. Similarly, the investment by NASA in the two Keck telescopes has been extremely successful and beneficial. This investment has given planetary astronomers access to the state-of-the-art instruments on the largest telescopes in the world. The Keck telescopes have been particularly productive in the search for extrasolar planets. The Keck Observatory also played a vital role in the Deep Impact comet encounter by imaging the moment of impact. Access to the Keck telescopes enabled by NASA has led to exciting and unexpected results that have helped to shape current and future research directions.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report FIGURE 5.2 The James Webb Space Telescope. SOURCE: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report Use of the Deep Space Network Goldstone facility and the Arecibo antenna for active radar studies of many solar system bodies has been extremely productive. This includes not just the well-known imaging of numerous asteroids, but also the measurement of surface topographies, including fine-scale surface structure and mineral properties and rotation rates of Mercury, Venus, and the Moon. After a Senior Review of the Arecibo facility by the National Science Foundation, it appears as if NSF will discontinue funding for Arecibo’s radar, and NASA has not agreed to take over the funding. Thus, within 1 year, Arecibo’s radar may be discontinued. While it is probably unrealistic for NASA to consider a complete takeover of Arecibo, NASA could investigate partnering with NSF and other interested parties to ensure the continued availability of this facility for solar system research. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey endorses the 2001 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey recommendation for a Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope and further recommends that it be utilized for the physical characterization of solar system objects.” (p. 208) Grade: N/A There was no clear “action item” for NASA in the decadal survey’s endorsement of the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT), and indeed NASA has taken no action. NSF has led U.S. involvement in the next generation of very large telescopes, through its National Optical Astronomy Observatory Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope Program Office. The two consortia that have responded to the GSMT initiative, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope, both target solar system science and planetary system formation and evolution in their science justifications. It would be helpful to have a NASA liaison with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope Program Office to ensure that NASA science objectives can be achieved in this project. See also Box 5.1. FLIGHT MISSION DATA ANALYSIS New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey strongly encourages exploration of ways to accomplish the following: improve the early involvement of the PDS with missions.” (p. 167) Grade: A Trend: The Planetary Data System (PDS) project has been proactive in early involvement with missions. The PDS project has discussed archiving requirements with the people writing mission Announcements of Opportunity and has made sure that the most recent archiving documents are available to potential principal investigators. The PDS project has worked with Discovery and Scout proposal PIs to have realistic costs of data archiving put into proposals. The PDS project has been involved in the proposal review process to evaluate the data-archiving plans of missions. Recommendation: NASA Announcements of Opportunity should require each space mission proposal to estimate and budget explicitly for archiving activities. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey strongly encourages exploration of ways to accomplish the following: … Increase the PDS budget and streamline its procedures, while not lowering standards or eliminating peer reviews, in order to deal with the data, perhaps considering the function to be funded at a fixed fraction, such as 1 percent of the mission development and operations budget in addition to a small base budget, to ensure that the PDS can cope with varying amounts of archiving ….” (p. 167) Grade: A Trend:
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report BOX 5.1 Important Science Falling Through the Bureaucratic Cracks: A Note on the Study of Exoplanets The many exoplanets that have been discovered have presented several fundamental scientific problems for planetary studies. There were no explicit recommendations in the New Frontiers in the Solar System decadal survey concerning the study of exoplanets despite their direct relevance to the understanding of solar system formation.1 The Committee on Assessing the Solar System Exploration Program does not know if our solar system is an exceptional example of a planetary system or whether it is a typical example. There are probably many possible planetary system morphologies, but whether they fall into well-defined classes or a general scattering of disparate types is not known; nor is this likely to be known until a variety of new observing programs have been undertaken. The principal techniques that have been exploited so far are as follows: Radial velocity studies of stars, detecting the exoplanet by the reflex motion of the parent star about the barycenter, and Photometry, observing the transit of an exoplanet across the stellar disc. A third method, stellar astrometry, observes the wobble of the parent star about the barycenter and is complementary to the radial velocity method, obtaining the mass of the exoplanet without the sin i indeterminacy of the radial velocity method. The radial velocity method is most sensitive for small values of the semi-major axis, revealing a completely new category of Jupiter-like planets within a few tens of astronomical units. Astrometry is the more sensitive method for large values of the semi-major axis and thus is best suited to detecting systems that might be analogous to our solar system. The photometric method requires a star where the planetary plane is seen edge-on; its highest probability occurs when the exoplanet is close to the star, and detection probability drops as the semi-major axis increases; for exoplanets with several-year orbital periods, the probability of detection diminishes severely. The organization of exoplanet studies within NASA appears to be inefficient, split between the Planetary Science Division and the Astrophysics Science Division. Research is supported by the Origins of Solar Systems Research and Analysis Program in the Planetary Science Division, and the Astrobiology Research and Analysis Program; the Keck funding is supported by the Astrophysics Science Division, as is the forthcoming (photometric) Kepler mission. Astrometry had been supported by the Astrophysics Science Division, but for budgetary reasons NASA has canceled the Keck outrigger program and dropped both the Stellar Interferometry Mission and the Terrestrial Planet Finder programs to a very low level. At the same time, the budget available to support a wide variety of exoplanet studies has been diminished severely, despite the unprecedented successes in this field over the past several years. This seems to be a clear example of an interdisciplinary program that is in danger of falling through the cracks between administrative divisions. It is not within the charge of this committee to recommend what action should be taken, but it is clear that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate should review its various exoplanet activities in order to work out a more orderly process. 1National Research Council, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003. The PDS budget has gradually increased over the past several years. PDS archiving procedures have become more streamlined. The PDS archiving preparation guides have recently been revised, replacing data preparation workbooks that were difficult to use. The PDS project has prepared calculators to determine archiving costs for missions.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report Since the cost of archiving depends critically on the type of data produced by a mission and its instruments, fixing the costs at some fraction of total mission cost is probably not realistic. Instead, the PDS has developed good cost estimation models and algorithms and will work with mission PIs to ensure accurate cost estimates for data-archiving needs. New Frontiers Recommendation Results of Midterm Review “The SSE Survey strongly encourages exploration of ways to accomplish the following: … Ensure that missions as well as R&A projects producing large data sets have adequate funding for proper archiving.” (p. 167) Grade: B Trend: NASA has become properly aware of data-archiving needs for missions. As explained above, mission proposal reviews now explicitly examine data-archiving plans. However, data archiving in the much smaller R&A programs is a neglected area. There have never been archiving requirements for R&A PIs. The average R&A grant is so small that data archiving is normally ignored. Recommendation: NASA should consider encouraging principal investigators to offer archival data sets in their initial proposals so that the review panels can assess the desirability of the data sets.