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Winter 2009 Vol. 8 Number 3

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©Boris Starosta/Stock Illustration Source Into Deep Space or In Too Deep?

NASA's Plans for Scientific Exploration Come at a Price

Exploration of deep space, including NASA's proposed return to the moon and visits to Mars, could provide clues to a host of scientific questions, from the origins of Earth to the history of life in our solar system. NASA is in the midst of developing the Constellation System -- a system of spacecraft and launch vehicles to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit -- and is considering which scientific missions would be best suited to Constellation.

A recent report from the National Research Council reviews potential science missions, evaluating the possibility of scientific advances and whether inclusion in Constellation, as opposed to using current spacecraft, would enhance the mission. The report recommends the 8-meter monolithic space telescope, Solar Probe 2, Interstellar Probe, solar polar imager, and Neptune Orbiter with probes for further study for the Constellation System. Several other missions were considered promising, but they would require greater effort to develop. The report stresses that any decisions in favor of such large space science missions need to be properly reviewed and recommended by the relevant space science decadal surveys.

For many of the proposed missions, costs could be an insurmountable hurdle. Preliminary estimates of several are over $5 billion, and the committee that wrote the report expects the actual costs to end up much higher. The report points out that in the past NASA has begun ambitious space science missions that ended up too expensive to pursue, such as the Voyager-Mars mission and the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission of the Prometheus program.

According to the report, the Constellation System alone might be insufficient for many of the proposed science missions and additional technological developments may be required. NASA currently lacks a technology development strategy for science missions, however.

NASA could reduce costs for Constellation space science by embarking on joint science missions with other countries, thereby taking advantage of international scientific and technological expertise and saving money using foreign instruments and infrastructure. Ultimately, however, the Constellation System is being developed to further human exploration of space, not to perform science missions, the report points out. Constellation offers many opportunities for advancing knowledge, but unless NASA's funding situation changes significantly in coming years, the cost of science in deep space could be too high.   -- Rebecca Alvania

Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASA's Constellation System. Committee on Science Opportunities Enabled by NASA's Constellation System, Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2008, approx. 160 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11644-9; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $37.25 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by George Paulikas, former executive vice president of Aerospace Corp. The study was funded by NASA.

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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences