NASA budget, some of the Martian missions underway at risk – AstronautsNEWS


Following the budget proposal for the fiscal year 2021, the statements of a NASA executive, some problems that arose during the construction of the next Martian rover Perseverance and the desire to launch the mission at all costs on the date set for next July 17th NASA could cut funds to three historic missions currently operating on the red planet, condemning two of them to the conclusion.

«Although the 2020 budget is very favorable to us, unfortunately, due to some difficulties encountered in the preparation of the Mars 2020 mission, we ran into problems that forced us to reduce funding for other missions»Jim Watzin, director of the NASA Mars Exploration Program, said during a government meeting on 9 March.

The SHERLOC spectrometer mounted on the Perseverance robotic arm. Credit: NASA

The problems to which Watzin refers were of a technical nature concerning two scientific instruments of the Perseverance rover, the spectrometer “Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals” (SHERLOC) and the “Sample Caching System”, the containment system for soil samples that could be brought back to Earth with a future mission.
This caused costs to rise by approximately $ 360 million, equal to 21.4% of the budget budgeted for the next fiscal year 2021.

A prototype of the Mars 2020 Rover sample container.

Although officially NASA has not yet communicated where the funds to fill the deficit will be found, Jim Watsin has always anticipated that the cuts could concern three missions already underway, Mars Odyssey, MSL Curiosity and support for the European Mars Express mission.

Given the limitations imposed by the budget, we face very difficult decisions to make and unfortunately this could be the result.

Artistic representation of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, Credit: NASA.

Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, is currently in the eighth extension of the mission. From the Martian polar orbit, the probe collects data concerning the geology, climate and mineralogy of the red planet, also acting as the primary repeater for NASA rover and lander of the last ten years. According to what proposed, the mission would receive $ 1 million in 2021, compared to 11.5 in 2019, to then be terminated starting from 2022, even if the reserve of fuel for orbital maneuvers is sufficient until 2025.

The Curiosity rover has been working on Mars since 2012. Credit: NASA.

MSL Curiosity it operates within the Gale crater, where it has been exploring the slopes of Mount Sharp since 2012 by sampling and analyzing the Martian soil, it is currently at its third extension of the mission.
Funding is expected to decrease from $ 51.1 million in 2019 to $ 40 million in 2021, dropping to zero in subsequent years.

Artistic representation of the Mars Express probe, Credit: ESA.

Mars Express is a European probe launched in 2003, currently at the sixth extension of the mission, whose purpose is the study of the ionosphere, atmosphere, surface and subsoil of Mars.
NASA partially financed two of the scientific instruments on board, the Italian MARSIS and the Swedish ASPERA, and in 2019 it had allocated 2.8 million dollars to maintain the mission, but no contribution is expected from 2021 onwards. If this were the case, ESA would have to bear 100% of the maintenance costs.

These cuts will also occur due to the increase in funding for future Martian missions that NASA has proposed in recent years. If in 2019 the program Mars Future Missions it was financed with 30 million dollars, for 2021 232,600 were requested which will increase to 775 in 2025.

Artistic representation of the launch of Martian champions to Earth, Credit: NASA / ESA.

Most of these funds are intended for the design and development of the Sample Return Mission (SRM), the mission in collaboration with ESA that will take the soil samples container from Perseverance to bring them back to Earth. This complex and ambitious mission, which includes a lander (NASA), a rover (ESA), a Mars Ascent Vehicle MAV (NASA) and a return probe to Earth with its return capsule (ESA), is currently scheduled for 2026, with return of the capsule in 2031.

Another mission that will begin the study, development and implementation process will be the “Mars Ice Mapper” which, in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), will map the sub-surface ice deposits of some mid-latitude regions from orbit up to 10 meters deep. The choice to map these regions lies in the fact that they could be chosen for future exploration missions, including those with crew.
The spacecraft, whose launch is currently scheduled for 2026, will also act as an orbital repeater for communications of future Martian missions.
Until the presentation of the budget for the fiscal year 2021, this mission had not been the subject of extensive discussions and therefore took the scientific community quite by surprise. But recently it was defended by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science, who clarified that the mission is part of the request to maintain a robust communication network with Mars, that the Canadian ice mapping tool does not represent a significant increase for costs and that missions of this type, therefore small and economic, can be carried out even if in the past they have not been the subject of large studies and discussions.

Lori Glaze, NASA Director of Planetary Science Division, thought about toning down the worries and tones, who on March 16 stated that these are only proposals: the 2021 budget is still far from being official, so much so that that of this year 2020 is still under discussion in Congress.

Please keep in mind that these are only budget proposals, the missions reported are still in full swing, have so far carried out the assigned objectives well and we certainly have all the interest and desire to keep them operational as much as possible.

Source: SpaceNews, NASA (PDF).

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