Decadal Survey

Committee praises NASA’s planetary science program but raises some concerns

Europa lander

WASHINGTON — NASA has done a good job implementing the recommendations of its latest planetary science decadal survey despite past budget problems, but needs to improve some programs, a recent report concluded.

The midterm assessment of the 2011 planetary science decadal survey, prepared by a National Academies committee and published Aug. 7, found that NASA was able to make progress on both flagship and smaller missions recommended by the survey even with funding cuts in the early years of the decade.

“The committee concluded that despite significant cuts to the Planetary Science Division’s budget early in this decade, NASA has made impressive progress at meeting the decadal survey’s goals,” the committee noted in its final report, a reference to a nearly 20 percent cut in planetary science funding in 2013 to less than $1.3 billion. Its budget has subsequently risen significantly, to $2.2 billion in 2018.

The progress includes work on two flagship-class missions prioritized in the report, a Mars rover mission to cache samples for later return to Earth and a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Those concepts have become the Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper missions, respectively, after undergoing redesigns to reduce their projected budgets from the decadal report.

The committee, though, did note concerns about the potential cost of Europa Clipper, a multi-billion-dollar mission. “NASA should continue to closely monitor the cost and schedule associated with the Europa Clipper to ensure that it remains executable” without affecting other missions, the committee recommended. “If the [lifecycle cost] exceeds this range, NASA should de-scope the mission.”

The committee was more skeptical about a third flagship-class mission in the early stages of development, a Europa lander mission. The mission has enjoyed funding well above any administration requests largely due to the advocacy of Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and is the most prominent congressional supporter of the mission.

A Europa lander, the committee noted, was not prioritized in the latest decadal survey, which called it a “far term” mission that did not receive a detailed cost and technical assessment at the time. “The midterm committee, although it lacks an official cost estimate, believes the mission cost to be in the multiple billions of dollars range,” it concluded.

“Given its cost and its potential impact on the rest of the planetary science program, the committee concluded that the mission should be vetted within the decadal survey process,” the report stated.

The committee also raised concerns about the future of Mars exploration. NASA’s only Mars exploration under development is Mars 2020, although the agency has started studies of a so-called “lean” sample return architecture announced last August. That would require two more missions, one to collect the cached samples and launch them into Mars orbit, and another to collect the sample canister in Mars orbit and return it to Earth.

The committee concluded NASA should continue to study that Mars sample return architecture, but argued that with no other missions on the books, the sample return missions could be vulnerable to failures of existing Mars orbits that serve as communications relays. No other Mars science missions are under development as well.

“There is a risk that ongoing and soon-to-be landed assets on Mars will be left without telecommunications support because of the aging orbiters. The system is fragile and aging,” the committee stated. “There is currently no vision for a program beyond sample return, either for scientific investigation or to prepare for future human exploration.”

The committee recommended that NASA create a Mars Exploration Program (MEP) “architecture, strategic plan, management structure, partnerships (including commercial partnerships), and budget that address the science goals for Mars exploration” outlined in the decadal survey. “This approach of managing the MEP as a program, rather than just as a series of missions, enables science optimization at the architectural level.”

Another recommendation of the committee was to increase the cadence of the Discovery and New Frontiers programs of low- and medium-cost competitively selected planetary science missions. Budget cuts earlier in the decade affected the pace of competitions in both programs, and NASA has struggled to catch up even with increased funding in recent years.

The committee concluded that, to meet the mission cadence recommended in the decadal survey, NASA select three missions in upcoming competitions expected to take place in 2019 and 2021. NASA selected two missions, Lucy and Psyche, in its previous Discovery competition that concluded in January 2017.

The report also offered advice for the next decadal survey in the planetary sciences, which will likely begin by mid-2020 for publication in the spring of 2022. That survey will need to take into account both new science objectives, particularly in astrobiology, as well as new technologies and capabilities, such as smallsats.

The committee in particular recommended that NASA sponsor 8 to 10 concept studies of missions for potential consideration in the next decadal survey. That includes revisiting a previous study of an “ice giants” mission to Uranus and/or Neptune, citing different scientific objectives in a 2017 study versus those outlined in the decadal survey as well as concerns that “the scientific payload proposed in the study carries significant risk of failing to make the measurements” outlined in the decadal.

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Senate science hearing debates effectiveness of decadal surveys

The telescope’s combined science instruments and optical element exits the massive thermal vacuum testing chamber after about 100 days of cryogenic testing inside it. Scientists and engineers at Johnson Space Center put JWST through a series of tests designed to ensure the telescope functioned as expected in an extremely cold, airless environment akin to that of space. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A Senate hearing Aug. 1 intended to discuss NASA’s search for life beyond Earth turned into a discussion about the long-standing process the scientific community uses to prioritize missions.

The hearing by the Senate’s space subcommittee on “The Search for Life: Utilizing Science to Explore our Solar System and Make New Discoveries” featured witnesses from within and outside the agency to discuss astrobiology research regarding other worlds in the solar system and on distant exoplanets.

The hearing was the second in a series planned by the committee to examine issues to go into a future NASA authorization bill. “What do you see as the science-related priorities that are most important to be reflected in that bill?” asked subcommittee chairman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the hearing.

One of the witnesses, David Spergel, a professor of astronomy at Princeton University and former chair of the Space Studies Board, mentioned the decadal survey process used in astrophysics and other disciplines, where scientists identify the top research priorities in their field and potential missions, from small to large, that should be flown in support of those priorities.

He noted that the astrophysics community was preparing to start work on its next decadal survey, due to be completed in late 2020. “We’ll begin by thinking about what are the key driving questions. The search for life will almost certainly be one,” he said. “Others will include understanding the processes of galaxy formation, star formation and the emergence of structure.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the subcommittee, raised the question of prioritizing missions again later in the hearing. Another witness, Sara Seager, a professor of physics and planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested it was worth reconsidering how the decadal process works.

“It’s kind of the structure that we’re, let’s say, forced to abide by,” she said. “Any institution, any kind of structure, that’s been around for more than half a century should be reviewed to see if it’s still effective.”

She said she thought there were “many areas for room for improvement” in the decadal process. Asked for specifics, she argued that the current process leads to mission concepts that are “very complicated” and thus expensive, like the James Webb Space Telescope. There may be a case, she said, for more focused missions that, while still large, do not attempt to be all things for all astronomers. “We can’t really do that in the current formulation of the survey,” she said.

How the decadal survey is organized makes it difficult for younger scientists to make their voices heard, she added. “Sometimes the younger people know more.”

Spergel and other witnesses, though, defended the decadal survey process while agreeing it can be improved. “The decadal process has been an effective way for prioritization,” he said. “It’s a process that can be and is being improved.” One such improvement, he said, is doing a better job of defining proposed missions and estimating their cost before recommending them, citing the experience with JWST.

“I think it’s an important and strong process that needs to be adhered to, because it really allows the best science to come forward,” said Ellen Stofan, former NASA chief scientist and current director of the National Air and Space Museum. “It’s not the person who shouts the loudest or has the most connections. It really is the best science.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said he welcomed the guidance provided by the decadal surveys. “For me, the decadal has been a very successful activity, but like every human endeavor, it should always be questioned and should be improved as we go forward,” he said. Seager’s concerns on issues like diversity of inputs during the decadal process “resonated” with him, he said.

That discussion of the decadal process was one of several topics touched upon during the 80-minute hearing officially about the search for life beyond Earth. Senators asked questions on other topics, ranging from planetary defense against near Earth asteroids to space weather to the importance of NASA continuing to perform Earth science research.

The hearing also briefly discussed the latest cost and schedule overruns with JWST. Unlike the House Science Committee, which spent several hours on the topic in a two-part hearing July 25 and 26, the Senate space subcommittee spent only a few minutes about it, with Cruz asking the witnesses to explain “that incredible increase” in its costs.

“That’s the question I’m asking myself and my team on a regular basis,” Zurbuchen responded. He blamed the increase on several issues, including “excessive optimism,” and development of multiple new technologies, and additional time needed to complete integration and testing work for the spacecraft.

Asked by Cruz if JWST’s delays would lead to a reassessment of the use of cost-plus versus fixed-price contracting, Zurbuchen argued complex missions like JWST would not fit well in a fixed-price approach. “For new, innovative projects of the type that nobody has ever done, it will be very hard to get a fixed-price contract from a company,” he said.

Spergel, in his opening statement, asked Congress to spread out the additional cost incurred by JWST’s delays across the agency, versus simply the astrophysics program. “JWST’s delays are frustrating for all of us,” he said, but said the mission will ultimately be “a flagship of all of NASA” with its scientific discoveries.

“Since JWST is an agency-wide priority, new costs should be spread across the agency,” he said. “If they’re borne entirely by the astrophysics directorate, they’ll have a devastating effect on future missions and the scientific program.”

Spergel and others said that JWST and NASA’s next large astrophysics mission, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, offered national leadership at a time when Europe and especially China are developing new capabilities that could soon rival the U.S.

“I think we are leading the world,” he said. “I have been very impressed by the investments the Chinese are making in space science. They were really not even significant players 10 years ago. Looking to where they might be a decade from now, if we stop investing, they will be the leaders.”

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NASA imposes cost caps on astrophysics flagship studies

Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR) is one of four concepts for a flagship-class mission currently being studied for potential inclusion in the 2020 astrophysics decadal survey. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA has directed teams studying proposed flagship-class missions for the next astrophysics decadal survey to fit their concepts within cost caps that could force major changes to their designs.

In a May 31 statement, NASA said it has instructed the four teams studying proposed missions for consideration by the 2020 decadal survey to “narrow the scope” of their concepts so that their total cost is between $3 billion and $5 billion. That new cap, the statement said, reflected “current and anticipated budget constraints” for the agency’s astrophysics programs.

NASA chartered the four studies in 2016 to support the decadal survey, each devoted to a specific proposed mission. Those studies are intended to discuss the scientific rationales for the missions and describe their design, including cost estimates. The studies, prior to now, did not have any firm cost caps.

“The programmatic landscape has changed since the initial studies,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, in a statement about the new cost caps. “We need to ensure we can accomplish breakthrough science while adhering to a realistic, executable scope and budget for the next decade.”

Hertz didn’t elaborate on those changes in the statement, but astronomers working on those studies said they were told delays in the James Webb Space Telescope and uncertainty about the status of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration proposed for cancellation in its 2019 budget request, played a major role in that decision.

Another factor, those astronomers said, is a shift in priorities at NASA from astrophysics to its human spaceflight program, in particular its “Exploration Campaign” of lunar missions. While NASA’s astrophysics programs, including JWST, received nearly $1.4 billion in the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill, the 2019 request offered less than $1.2 billion for astrophysics and projected flat spending through fiscal year 2023.

A cost cap of $5 billion is significantly less than the budget of JWST, which is in danger of breaching a $8 billion cost cap because of its recent problems. WFIRST, by contrast, has a cost cap of $3.2 billion but had to make changes, such as turning one of its instruments into a technology demonstration, in order to fit within that cap.

NASA has previously emphasized that WFIRST is a far less technically challenging mission than JWST that can also take advantage of donated hardware, notably a 2.4-meter telescope assembly offered by the National Reconnaissance Office.

At least one of the four mission studies, though, claims to be exempt from this new directive. The Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR) mission would develop a space telescope with a primary mirror up to 15 meters in diameter, intended to support a broad range of astronomical research in ultraviolet through infrared wavelengths. JWST, by comparison, has a primary mirror 6.5 meters across.

In a statement posted to its website, the LUVOIR team acknowledged that it and the other study teams received instructions from NASA Headquarters “to produce versions of their concepts that fit into the $3-5B cost box.” However, it added, “LUVOIR was exempt from this instruction.” It didn’t explain why and how it was granted an exemption.

Among the other missions being studied is the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx), a space telescope designed to directly image exoplanets and look for evidence of habitability; Lynx, an X-ray observatory intended to be a successor to the Chandra X-Ray Observatory but with far greater sensitivity; and Origins Space Telescope, a far-infrared space telescope with a primary mirror 9 meters across to study the early universe and look for biosignatures around nearby exoplanets.

Even before the announcement of a cost cap, NASA officials had suggested that astronomers would have to take new approaches to large mission concepts to fit within projected budgets.

“I think even in the most optimistic of all worlds, we’re not going to double the astrophysics budget,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, at a May 2 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board. “In the absence of such a doubling, how are we going to look at a balanced program across disciplines?”

He added he believed that many astronomers were seeking to develop the next flagship astrophysics mission within the same paradigm as previous ones. “For most of the missions, we don’t want to do exactly what we did two decades ago,” he said. “It’s time for new thought.”

“NASA has always been known for thinking outside the box and accomplishing what was thought to be impossible,” Hertz said in the May 31 statement. “I am optimistic we will continue to do so for the next flagship mission.”

NASA plans to deliver those reports to the National Academies committee working on the decadal survey in mid-2019, although the agency said in its statement that that deadline could be pushed back. The committee will use the studies to inform its work on identifying the highest priority missions NASA should undertake in the next decade but is not required to select from among those four concepts when it chooses its top priority large-scale, or flagship, mission.

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First-ever Earth science decadal survey was a call to action

So far, NASA has launched just one of the 15 missions recommended in the 2007 Earth science decadal survey: the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, mission. The $915 million mission launched Jan. 31, 2015. Less than six months later, its radar failed but its radiometer continues to function.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

To gauge the impact of the National Academies’ first Earth science decadal survey, it’s important to look beyond its list of 15 recommended missions and consider the warning the panel began conveying in its 2005 interim report: The U.S. Earth-observing program was in danger of collapse.

“Normally, a decadal survey doesn’t have that kind of language, but it was accurate,” said Berrien Moore, co-chair of the first Earth science decadal survey committee and Oklahoma University vice president of weather and climate programs. “Budgets were dropping, missions were being canceled, there was nothing in the queue. That immediately got Capitol Hill engaged and the press engaged.”

“I don’t think any of us expected that everything would get done on time and within budget.” Rick Anthes, co-chair of the 2008 Earth science decadal survey committee“I don’t think any of us expected that everything would get done on time and within budget.”
Rick Anthes, co-chair of the 2008 Earth science decadal survey committee

Eleven years after the National Academies published “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” NASA has a vibrant Earth science program, which Moore credits to the wakeup call provided by the 2007 decadal survey and the leadership of Mike Freilich, NASA’s long-serving Earth Science Division director. Freilich remained committed to the committee’s recommendations even though he was not always able to carry them out due to budget constraints and launch failures, Moore said.

“Carrying out all of the recommendations would have been a home run winning the World Series,” said Rick Anthes, co-chair of the 2007 decadal survey committee and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research president emeritus. “I don’t think any of us expected that everything would get done on time and within budget.”

Nevertheless, Moore is disappointed in the way NASA handled two decadal survey missions: Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), a campaign to measure water in topsoil, and Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) 2, which focuses on ice sheets and sea ice.

To study soil moisture, the committee suggested NASA draw on the hardware, science algorithms and ground systems developed for a canceled Earth System Science Pathfinder mission called Hydrosphere State, or Hydros. Instead of proceeding with Hydros for an estimated $325 million, NASA launched SMAP in 2015 at a cost of $915 million to build, launch and operate. SMAP’s radiometer continues to function but its radar failed after less than six months due to a faulty amplifier.

Earth Science Appropriation as percent of NASA budget
Similarly, the 2007 decadal survey panel called on NASA to make ICESat-2 nearly identical to ICESat but with an improved laser. NASA discovered problems with the original mission’s laser soon after the satellite launched in 2009.

“We wanted to get [ICESat-2] up there quickly and we knew what it would cost,” Moore said. “That is not what [NASA] Goddard decided to do.”

ICESat-2, which is slated to launch in September, is expected to cost more than twice as much as the $300 million mission recommended in the 2007 report.

“It’s a far more expansive mission and it’s really exciting but it’s really expensive and really late,” Moore said.

NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite, due to launch in September on a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket will use laser altimeters to measure ice sheet elevation. (Credit: NASA Goddard)NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite, due to launch in September on a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket will use laser altimeters to measure ice sheet elevation. (Credit: NASA Goddard)

When the 2007 decadal survey was published, NASA leaders including then-Administrator Mike Griffin said the plan was overly ambitious and its mission cost estimates were too low.

That warning proved prescient as missions that won approval and funding tended to become more complex, expensive and time consuming.

“In my experience, cost growth occurs in space programs almost no matter how much you try to control it,” Anthes said. “It seems to be endemic.”

To ensure estimates are more accurate in the new 10-year-plan published Jan. 5, “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” the Aerospace Corp. provided cost and technical evaluations of major projects and technology proposed.

The report’s authors laud the work of the 2007 decadal committee and recommended NASA continue to carry out its current slate of missions based on the report.

Of the 15 missions recommended in the 2007 survey, only SMAP is in orbit. NASA plans to launch the second recommened mission in March, the U.S.-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On mission, twin satellites to circle Earth and detect changes in gravitational pull.

Although the missions are taking far longer than expected, Anthes said he is encouraged by NASA’s progress in other areas. In response to the panel’s recommendations, NASA created a new category of low-cost competitively selected missions known as Venture class. The first of those, Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, includes eight 25-kilogram satellites launched in December 2016 to measure ocean winds.

In addition, NASA heeded the committee’s calls to fund research and support science, Anthes said.

2007 Decadal Survey Missions

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NASA Earth Science Division looks to Congress, Decadal Survey for direction

Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

AUSTIN, Texas — Until Congress and the White House come to an agreement on the 2018 budget, NASA’s Earth Science Division will not know how much money it will have to spend in fiscal year 2018 or the fate of five missions the Trump Administration recommended for termination.

Even if the division’s 2018 budget mirrors the President Trump’s proposal to cut NASA’s Earth Science budget from its current level of about $1.9 billion to about $1.75 billion, “we have a broad portfolio of many missions on orbit and under development to launch between now and 2022,” Mike Freilich, NASA Earth Science Division director, said Jan. 9 at the American Meteorological Society meeting here. “There would be a measurable impact but it would not be existential.”

The Trump administration and House of Representatives have weighed in on cancelling the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem satellite, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3, and Earth-viewing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory, missions the Senate endorses.

While waiting for a new budget, NASA’s Earth Science Division leaders are studying the National Academies 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey published Jan. 5. Since the survey report highlights science priorities and objectives rather than specific mission architectures, NASA’s Earth Science Division will work with researchers in industry and academia to identify focused missions and approaches to soliciting the work.

“That will happen over the next 12 to 18, maybe 20 months,” Freilich said. “Don’t worry because the decadal strongly endorsed our ongoing program of record, which fills up the budget to approximately fiscal year 2021. During the period while we are getting ready, we will continue to implement and launch the missions that we are doing right now.”

Even if Congress endorses the Trump administration’s recommendation to cancel some Earth Science Division programs,”we have a portfolio of 15 or so new missions and major instruments that we will be launching from March or April of this year through 2022. So it’s a big portfolio and that work will continue.”

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Astronomers meet amid questions about the status of NASA flagship missions

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope recently completed thermal vacuum testing at the Johnson Space Center for a launch now planned for the spring of 2019, a delay from October 2018. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Scientists gathering this week for the country’s largest astronomy meeting will discuss plans for future space telescopes, while raising questions about the status of upcoming missions.

More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) at National Harbor, Maryland, for a week of scientific presentations as well as mission and policy updates from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Astronomers come to the meeting as NASA’s next two flagship astrophysics missions, the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), face delays and questions about their budgets and capabilities.

NASA had planned to launch JWST this October on an Ariane 5, but in September announced a delay until the spring of 2019. The agency said at the time that the mission was facing no specific hardware issues, but instead that integration and testing of the $8 billion observatory was taking longer than anticipated.

“This is nothing to worry about,” said Martin Still, executive secretary of the Exoplanet Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG) at NASA Headquarters at a meeting of the group Jan. 7 in advance of the AAS conference. “This is the first time that NASA engineers and Northrop Grumman engineers had put all this together. They’re learning as they go, and they were just a little bit overenthusiastic about their schedule, overenthusiastic about how many things they could do in parallel.”

At a House Science Committee hearing a month ago, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said that an updated launch date for JWST would be ready for release in January and February, after an independent review of the status of the mission. Others at the hearing, though, cautioned that additional delays may be possible as the spacecraft goes through integration and testing work in the next year.

“More delays are possible given the risks associated with the work ahead and the level of schedule reserves that are now below what is usually recommended,” said Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office at the Dec. 6 hearing.

NASA’s next flagship astrophysics missions after JWST, WFIRST, is also facing scrutiny. Zurbuchen announced in October that he was asking program officials to make changes to the proposed mission, still in early stages of development, after an independent review concluded its estimated costs were approaching $4 billion. The redesign, Zurbuchen said, should bring the mission’s cost down to $3.2 billion.

That effort is in progress and is scheduled to be completed in February. Zurbuchen, in his October memo calling for the redesign, raised the possibility of revisiting the decision to use a donated 2.4-meter telescope assembly from the National Reconnaissance Office for WFIRST, rather than a smaller telescope originally envisioned for the mission, should the redesign not meet its cost cap.

At the December hearing, Thomas Young, a retired aerospace executive, said he was not particularly concerned about the WFIRST review. “I want to emphasize that there is no cause for panic,” he said. “What is transpiring is a perfectly healthy process to assure that the scope, cost and risk are appropriately defined prior to proceeding past milestone B,” a reference to Key Decision Point B, which NASA has postponed while the WFIRST redesign takes place.

Despite the problems with JWST and WFIRST, another NASA astrophysics missions is making good progress for a launch in the next few months. At the ExoPAG meeting, Still said the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was wrapping up integration and test activities, and should be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in February.

TESS is scheduled for launch no earlier than March 20 on a SpaceX Falcon 9, a launch date that is dependent on NASA certifying the vehicle in time for carrying science missions like TESS. Zurbuchen said at the December hearing that he expected that certification effort to be complete by early 2018.

“Everybody at Headquarters is excited enough that they’re starting to book flights” to attend the TESS launch, Still said.

TESS is a successor to Kepler, a NASA mission that has allowed astronomers to discover thousands of exoplanets as they cross, or transit, the disks of the stars they orbit, causing brief, periodic dimmings of those stars that can be observed. Kepler is expected to end operations later this year when it runs out of fuel used by its thrusters and is no longer to maintain attitude control.

“It is very much running on fumes,” Still said of Kepler. “Some time over the next 12 months, Kepler will indeed start to inelegantly drift away in pointing and will be unusable.”

At the AAS meeting, scientists will also be looking ahead to missions unlikely to fly for more than a decade. As part of preparations for the next astrophysics decadal survey, scheduled for release in late 2020, studies are underway of four concepts for flagship-class missions for consideration by that report. Updates about those mission concepts — the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission, the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor, the Lynx X-ray observatory and Origins Space Telescope — are scheduled for presentation at the conference, along with an update for the planning of the decadal survey.

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What happened to the 2007 Earth science decadal survey missions?

Soil Moisture Active Passive is the only one of 15 NASA Earth science missions recommended in the 2007 decadal survey that has flown. Credit: NASA

SAN FRANCISCO — Ten years after the National Academies published the first Earth science decadal survey, NASA has flown one of the 15 recommended missions with two more scheduled to launch in 2018.

The first decadal survey mission to reach orbit was Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), a campaign to measure water in topsoil that has been in orbit since 2015. SMAP’s L-band radiometer continues to function, but its onboard radar quit after less than six months due to a faulty amplifier.

Next up are the twin satellites of the U.S.-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On. The spacecraft, which are designed to circle the Earth in tight formation and detect changes in gravitational pull that reveal higher concentrations of mass, are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California awaiting a March flight on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket alongside five Iridium Next communications satellites.

In September, NASA plans to launch Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, to monitor ice sheets, sea ice and glaciers, on the last Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg.

It’s not surprising that NASA has made little progress flying missions recommended in the 2007 report, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond.” When it was published, NASA leaders including then-Administrator Mike Griffin, warned the plan was overly ambitious and only a fraction of the work could be completed in a decade because the missions would cost far more than estimated.

That warning proved prescient. SMAP, for example, cost $915 million to build, launch and operate, more than three times its $300 million cost estimate in the decadal survey. Similarly, ICESat-2 will cost more than twice as much to build, launch and operate than its $300 million pricetag in the 2007 report.

NASA’s budget for GRACE Follow-On remains close to the $450 million but Germany’s DLR is providing nearly $100 million in additional funding.

To ensure estimates are more accurate in the new report published Jan. 5, “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” the Aerospace Corp. provided cost and technical evaluations of major projects and technology proposed.

Nevertheless, authors of the 2017 decadal survey lauded the work of the 2007 decadal committee, and recommended NASA continue to carry out its current missions based on the report.

Here’s look at those missions:

2007 Decadal Survey Missions Status Launch Date Program Update and Recommendations
Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Future 2022 Trump Administration’s proposed cancelling CLARREO Pathfinder, a Space Station demonstration.
Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Current 2015 Radar failed. Radiometer works.
Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) 2 Future 2018 September launch on Delta 2 rocket.
Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) Cancelled Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation and NASA-India Space Research Organization Synthetic Aperture Radar missions to perform similar science
Hyperspectral InfraRed Imager (HyspIRI) Future Key objectives would be met by 2017 decadal survey’s recommended Surface Biology and Geology program
Active Sensing of CO2 Emissions over Nights, Days, and Seasons (ASCENDS) Future Recommended in 2017 survey as candidate for new Earth System Explorer Greenhouse Gases mission
Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) Future 2021 Joint program with French Space Agency CNES
Geostationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events (GEO-CAPE) Future Instruments may be flown as hosted payloads on commercial satellites. Aerosols research proposed in 2017 survey would offer similar observations.
Aerosol-Cloud-Ecosystems (ACE) Future Key objectives would be met by 2017 survey’s Aerosols and Clouds, Convection and Precipitation missions.
Lidar Surface Topography (LIST) Future New survey calls for technology development effort.
Precision and All-weather Temperature Humidity (PATH) Future New survey calls for technology incubation program.
Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On Future 2018 Joint U.S. German program. Scheduled to launch in March.
Snow and Cold Land Processes Future Recommended in 2017 survey as candidate for Earth System Explorer snow depth research.
Global Atmosphere Composition Mission Future Recommended in 2017 survey as candidate for Earth System Explorer ozone and trace gas research.
3D-Winds (Demonstration) Future Recommended in 2017 survey as candidate for Earth System Explorer and technology incubation.

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