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NASA Space Science

Scientists Give NASA Planetary Marching Orders 145

coondoggie writes "The community and team of scientists that help NASA prioritize space missions has come out with its exploration recommendations for the next decade: get to Mars, explore one of Jupiter's moons and study Uranus. From the report: 'The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn have been extensively studied by the Galileo and Cassini missions, respectively. But Uranus and Neptune represent a wholly distinct class of planet. While Jupiter and Saturn are made mostly of hydrogen, Uranus and Neptune have much smaller hydrogen envelopes. The bulk composition of these planets is dominated instead by heavier elements; oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur are the likely candidates. What little we know about the internal structure and composition of these "ice giant" planets comes from the brief flybys of Voyager 2. So the ice giants are one of the great remaining unknowns in the solar system: the only class of planet that has never been explored in detail.'"
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Scientists Give NASA Planetary Marching Orders

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  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @07:02AM (#35417124) Journal

    Look, these orbiters and probes (yes to Uranus) are projected to cost in multiple billions EACH. As much as I love space exploration and think NASA's done a bang-up job (in their unmanned program at least), these planetary bodies aren't going anywhere and do not directly address any pressing problems (climate change is the one exception but for that we should be looking at the rocky terrestrial like inner planets like Venus and Mars and not the gas giants).

    So why not put these programs on the slow track for a little while and spend a Billion developing some really good deep space propulsion systems? Finish VASIMIR, improve ion engines, develop high power nuclear reactors (not just wimpy RTGs), try laser beaming, solar sails or even magnetic bubbles! Anyway, if you can get a propulsion system that's 10x more efficient than our current chemical rockets you could send much more massive payloads quicker! This would substantially reduce the launch cost since it would "only" cost 10s of thousands of dollars to send a kg instead of 100s of thousands to the outer planets. This in turn would allow designers much more flexibilty to reduce cost/increase perfornance since they wouldn't be under such pressure to reduce weight. And by reducing or eliminating the need for time-consuming gravitational assists (6 years to Mercury!), it would likewise reduce support costs as well as increase science return (instruments won't be decades obsolete on arrival).

    - The distance to the outer planets is great enough that it makes me think of some science fiction stories (like Arthur C. Clarke's "The Songs of Distant Earth"), where newly developed technology could allow spacecraft launched later to overtake the earlier more primitive ships. While the travel times here will be measured in years or decades not centuries or millennia it still gives me pause. Unless there is some extremely fortuituous occurrence like the planetary alignment that made the Grand Tour possible (Pioneer, Voyager) it is better to wait AS LONG AS you spend the time (and money) making things stronger, faster, better, cheaper.

    (For some of these reasons, I support Obama's focus on developing new technologies before trying for the Moon (again) or Mars. We know we can do it, the question is can we do it affordably enough to SUSTAIN a manned presence?)

    Let's become a spacefaring civilization!

  • by HertzaHaeon ( 1164143 ) on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @07:20AM (#35417196) Homepage

    I see two problems here.

    Why cut back space programs instead of, say, military spending or bank bailouts? A fraction of either would put humans on Mars and probes on Jovian moons, and a little more cutbacks we'll have us solving climate change as well..

    Also, there will always be a promising new propulsion system on the horizon. When you've built a VASIMIR engine, there will be antimatter propulsion, and then some space-bending engine, and then an Infinite Improbability Drive. When do you stop tinkering and simply get your ass to Mars?

  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @08:36AM (#35417582)

    Could not agree more.
    It's so sad to see that the US just cannot reduce its main costs (defense, banks), and then endlessly fights over the crumbs that are left.
    But under the Patriot act it's probably not allowed to suggest that spending more money on warfare than all other countries combined is a bad thing?

    A peaceloving cheese-eating suddender monkey

  • by Vectormatic ( 1759674 ) on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @08:36AM (#35417586)

    i you set up your martian base somewhere in the -5 region, i reckon heating would hardly be needed. When it is minus 5 (centigrade) i can stay outside without much trouble in a pair of jeans and a good winter coat, and most of the heat loss then is from wind/air cooling, which would not be that big of a factor at 0.01 Bar atmospheric pressure. Hell, given that us meatbags produce a good amount of heat moving around, you could have bigger cooling needs then heating in those conditions.

    As for the living space, humans need about 20 degrees centigrade to be comfortable, and while heating a place to 25 degrees above ambient isnt exactly a low energy demand, it seems more feasable then dealing with cooling it to ambient -100 or so, especially if you would like to spend longer times on site. Hell, give everyone a good thick sweater and lower the hab temperature to 10 degrees and you just eliminated half your heating bill.

    You might be right about using apollo tech on mercury, and i would LOVE to see that mission go through (hell, if nasa gets going on a new moon mission, mercury can be done five years after the first second moon landing), but starting from scratch, the martian environment seems much easier to live in for us meatbags

  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @08:45AM (#35417622)

    Colonizing the Moon is an engineering task. We already know all the science we need. It's a vacuum, it has radiation, it has commonly used minerals.

    We don't need new scientific knowledge to solve that problem. We need engineering knowledge to solve that problem, and while it might be difficult to realize, you cannot just reassign astrophysicists to solve your plumbing problems.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @11:18AM (#35418988)

    Your terminator-following scheme fails the back-of-the-envelope test:
    2440km * pi / 187 days = 0.5m/s = 43.6 km/24h

    That means when you're near the equator, you've gotta average 44 km longitude per Earth day, plus whatever latitude progress suits you. You hit difficult terrain, or stop to study an interesting location, and you drift away from the terminator; then you exceed your power budget on cooling or on heating & lighting (and you need plenty of light, because you're trying to make time). Do that a little too often in 8000 km of uncharted wasteland and you die out there.

    The poles could be manageable, but I wouldn't send out even an equatorial terminator-riding mission without some form of rescue capability.

  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Tuesday March 08, 2011 @12:39PM (#35419988) Homepage

    To me, going to Mars or Uranus with probes vs going to the Moon means that we don't want to build up the technology and infrastructure to become a space faring species. It says that we're more interested in satisfying a few scientific curiosities rather than figuring out how to live away from the Earth's surface.

    I find their list to be extremely disappointing. I was hoping to see mankind take its first real steps toward the stars in my lifetime. Ah well...

    Developing technology and infrastructure is a big part of what NASA is focusing on, while letting commercial ventures focus on lowering cost to LEO. It's why I'm more enthusiastic than ever in my life about our prospects for going to the moon and staying there.

    This report is not about that. This report is about -- and only about -- satisfying the scientific curiosities that is the other big part of what NASA is about. So of course it doesn't mention colonizing the moon.

    So do not create, nor take this list to imply, a false dichotomy between human exploration of near-earth, and probe-based exploration of the rest of the solar system.

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato