This spring, NASA officials will conduct a review of the spacecraft that have outlived their original missions. For the 2015 fiscal year, which begins October 1, the agency faces particularly tough choices, in order to balance their books.
A decade after swinging into orbit around Saturn, the venerable Cassini spacecraft is still working, well beyond the four years of science the space agency had hoped to get. But the spacecraft is running low on maneuvering fuel, and its managers want to end with a scientific bang – an ambitious agenda that includes 22 orbits through a gap between the planet and its innermost ring before sending the craft on a death plunge into Saturn in 2017. For several months, however, scientists have worried that NASA, financially squeezed like the rest of the federal government, could terminate the mission sooner.
The Mars rover Curiosity, which will cost $68 million this year to operate, will complete its two-year primary mission in June 2014, so money for continued roving will come out of funds dedicated to “extended missions.” For this year, that amount is $140 million, which includes $58 million for Cassini. Other extended missions include the Messenger spacecraft at Mercury, the Mars rover Opportunity, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
No one expects NASA to turn off Curiosity, which will not even arrive at its primary science destination until later this year, raising concerns that Cassini may be on the chopping block. More recently, NASA planetary science director James Green told scientists that the perception of Cassini versus Curiosity was inaccurate and that officials could instead scale back the cost and scope of the extended missions. The agency could also juggle other money to pay for both Cassini and Curiosity, but that could have consequences like delaying future missions, which themselves are under pressure to deliver the maximum scientific benefits for a smaller cost.
Links and source: NY Times op-ed by Kenneth Chang.