September 17, 2012
In the U.S., space exploration and just about everything else but the meat-and-potatoes issues of war, peace and the economy have been relegated to the back burner while the quadrennial flamefest known as the presidential election plays out on the national stage. Democrats and Republicans have space planks in their policy platforms, but they are not exactly front and center in what passes for debate in the fog of sound bites and tweets.
Over at NASA, the political appointees are overseeing the agency's message—under close oversight from their own White House masters—to ensure nothing embarrassing emerges from the civil-space sector before voters go to the polls in November. With the Mars Science Laboratory safely on the surface, the agency's top managers released another $8.5 billion to fund the spectacular work of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for five more years. Otherwise, it is a quiet time at headquarters.
That does not mean the worker bees who keep the engine of space exploration running regardless of who is in the White House haven't been busy. A couple of announcements in the past month show that NASA's permanent staff is fully engaged. Most reassuring was selection of another Mars landing for the 2016 planetary launch window. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations (InSight) mission will drill down as deep as 16 ft. below the planet's surface to collect unprecedented data on the structure and history of Mars.
InSight will be a Discovery-class mission, capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars, and not a billion-dollar “flagship” mission. That marks a big setback for robotic Mars exploration. Last year NASA and the European Space Agency still were collaborating on a multi-launch joint program that would have used rovers to find and cache samples for later return to Earth. Returning samples for sophisticated analysis on Earth is the holy grail of robotic exploration of the red planet, and the top decadal priority of planetary scientists polled by the U.S. National Academies of Science. But the InSight mission is important, even if it doesn't support sample return. Along with the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter set for launch in 2014, InSight will expand our knowledge of Mars and provide a better idea of how the inner planets were formed and evolved.
InSight will not take advantage of the “sky crane” landing technique JPL demonstrated last month to get the big Curiosity rover down to the surface, but the payload is small enough that it doesn't need to. Instead, the mission will be a reprise of the 2008 Phoenix lander, transplanted from the planet's polar ice to the equatorial Elysium Planitia region (AW&ST Aug. 27, p. 34). In that open, flat area it won't need the precision-landing capability that was required to place Curiosity inside Gale Crater. But it will maintain the perishable Mars-landing skills that JPL has nurtured, at least for a few more years. NASA Mars exploration chief Doug McQuistion said right after Curiosity landed that if JPL had to go beyond 2018 without another landing, he would worry that the engineering, simulation and testing experience that enabled the feat would start to fade (AW&ST Aug. 13, p. 24).
While JPL's engineers prepare another robotic Mars lander, researchers in eight states and the District of Columbia will use relatively low-level NASA funding to study the effects of space radiation on tissues and cells. With present propulsion, shielding and other spacecraft technology, astronauts on a two-year mission to Mars would receive radiation doses higher than the lifetime dose permitted by radiation-health standards, and NASA is continuing to tackle that problem.
With space radiation long identified as the limiting factor on human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, NASA has used a specialized facility at the Brookhaven National Laboratory—known as the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory—to simulate the ionizing radiation that floods space in the form of galactic cosmic rays and solar particles.