Report from Washington, D.C.

Weiler Talks About NASA Science Mission Directorate

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Weiler Talks About NASA Science Mission Directorate On March 4, Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), spoke with reporters at a Space Foundation Correspondents Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Weiler began by saying that for the SMD, the president’s budget proposal provides both “good news and great news.” He said the “good news” is for heliophysics, planetary science, and astronomy, all of which would keep stable budgets that increase with inflation; the “great news” is that the Earth science part of the budget would increase 60 percent over the next five years. Although he doesn’t know what changes may be made during the Congressional budget process, he said that he believes there is strong support in Congress for Earth Science missions.

Weiler talked about highlights in each of the science divisions:

  • Heliophysics recently launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which monitors the sun from a geosynchronous orbit, collecting more solar data than we’ve ever had access to in the past. In addition to monitoring solar events, such as coronal mass ejections, Weiler said SDO will help us better understand and even predict them in the future.
  • The planetary science division continues to develop the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), achieving a major milestone in late February when the final actuator passed its two-times-life test, resolving MSL’s biggest impediment to success.
  • In astronomy, Weiler said the focus is on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is on schedule for a mid-2014 launch. He also said there is great anticipation for results from the Kepler telescope’s mission of identifying Earth-like planets.
  • The biggest changes, according to Weiler, are in Earth science where a significant proposed budget increase will reverse a ten-year decline in Earth observation funding. NASA’s Earth Science Office will be re-flying the Orbiting Carbon Observer (OCO) to monitor greenhouse gases. Weiler said that, to keep costs down and the schedule moving, the new OCO will be built to be as similar as possible to the original OCO, noting that it is almost impossible to build it exactly the same way because some parts are no longer available. He also said that it is likely that OCO will fly on a Taurus XL rocket again, although there may be a competitive bid for the launch. They will also be accelerating four major missions – Soil Moisture Active & Passive (SMAP), Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2), the Destiny Laboratory aboard the International Space Station, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) – as well as a number of smaller ones, including developing instruments that can fly on other nation’s satellites and missions that can be done using airborne flights.

Weiler said that the budget proposal focuses on technologies with cross-directorate benefits, including advanced gyros, and technology for atmospheric entry, descent, and landing, which would benefit both human and science missions. He said he believes space communications will transition from radio frequency communication requiring large dishes to more efficient laser communications technology, an example of the type of technology development that could benefit all divisions within NASA as well as the general public. He also mentioned that the SMD is the source of spin-off technologies, such as imaging technology developed for Hubble that is now used to help detect breast cancer.

Discussing the proposed budget’s commercial focus, Weiler explained that 85 percent of the SMD budget already goes to commercial contracts, primarily to buy spacecraft and rockets. Beyond that, he said, NASA engineers must do some spacecraft development to maintain their skills and enable them to better monitor spacecraft contracts.

Weiler talked about the future of a Mars sample return mission, which would land a spacecraft on Mars, dig up, collect and store samples, launch from Mars, rendezvous with an orbiter, return to Earth orbit, and then return the sample safely to Earth’s surface. The complexity and expense of this type of mission, Weiler said, led to an agreement between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a joint Mars program, with ESA leading the 2016 mission and NASA leading the 2018 mission. This, according to Weiler, could create the groundwork for a Mars sample return mission sometime in the mid-2020s. He noted that this type of mission is required before humans could travel to Mars, because no on-rover laboratory could be developed that would have that capabilities for analysis found on Earth.

Asked about the future of lunar science, Weiler explained that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will soon complete its exploration mission and transfer to SMD, where it would be made available for use by scientists. He noted that the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate budget includes $3 billion over the next five years for Lunar research directly relevant to exploration.

Weiler ended his discussion by saying that future research priorities for the SMD depends significantly on Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academy of Science: an Earth Science Decadal Survey was released in 2007; Astrophysics is expected in September 2010; Planetary Science in 2011; and Heliophysics in 2012.

To read coverage of the meeting in Florida Today, click here; in, click here

The meeting is part of a regular series of gatherings sponsored by the Space Foundation for Washington, D.C.-based space, defense, science and technology, business, and international journalists to engage in dialogue with leaders from across the space industry.

This article is part of Space Watch: April 2010 (Volume: 9, Issue: 4).