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NASA Budget Request Strong On Earth Weak On Mars

Guess there ain't that many voters on Mars
By Amir Alexander
for The Planetary Society
Pasadena CA (SPX) Feb 06, 2008
Two new Earth-observing satellites, a "flagship" mission to the outer planets, and several small lunar missions are among the highlights of the Administration's budget request for NASA for fiscal year 2009. At $17.6 billion the proposal represents a 1.8% increase over NASA's actual budget for 2008, and $4.44 billion, or just over a quarter of the total, is slated towards NASA's science missions.

"We are really turning heads with this budget" said Alan Stern, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, adding that the new funding priorities open up possibilities for a broad range of scientific investigations.

$910 million from the total science budget will go towards the development of a pair of Earth orbiting spacecrafts that will assist scientists in tracking global climate change. ICESat II- the "Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite" - will be a second generation spacecraft that specializes in measuring ice-sheet mass, as well as mapping topography and vegetation.

SMAP - Soil Moisture Active/Passive - will monitor moisture in the soil and freeze-thaw cycles. The investment in Earth-monitoring spacecraft is in part a response to a 2007 report by the National Research Council warning that if a new generation of Earth-monitoring satellites is not put in place, scientists' ability to monitor the Earth's environment will be drastically reduced.

The budget also includes funding for the start of a new "flagship" mission to the outer planets, though the precise nature of this venture has not yet been determined. One of the three options under consideration is a lander mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, designed to study the hidden ocean thought to exist beneath the moon's surface.

Another possibility is a mission to Saturn's moon Titan, which will include a lander and a balloon, as well as an orbiter. The third option being considered is a Jupiter orbiter which will also make close passes of the Jovian moons, including Europa. According to Alan Stern one of the three options will be dismissed by the end of the year, and the final selection will follow within months after that.

Three new and relatively small lunar missions are also funded in the proposed science budget. A lunar orbiter designed to study dust concentrations above the Moon's surface is planned for 2011, and a pair of polar landers is scheduled 2013 or 2014.

Launched from a single rocket, the two will head for the North and South lunar poles respectively. According to Stern, NASA is hoping to work closely on this project with international space agencies that are conducting or planning lunar missions in the coming years.

Whereas Earth monitoring and lunar and outer planets' exploration all stand to benefit substantially from the proposed budget, Mars exploration will suffer from NASA's new science priorities. No Mars lander is currently planned to follow the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory, and the orbiter previously slated for 2013 has now been postponed. A Mars sample return mission is planned for 2020, but no funds have been allocated for it as yet.

"We are grateful for the strong support this budget lends to space exploration, for the reinvigoration of space science and for the new project starts" said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society.

"The two new Earth science missions recommended by the National Research Council are particularly welcome," he said, "and Alan Stern, along with Mike Griffin, deserves great credit for this turnaround."

"Less welcome are the delays and cutbacks to Mars missions, and the loss of the Mars science and communications orbiter scheduled for 2013. We will seek additional funding and urge new planning to enable the orbiter mission to go forward."

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ESA Presents Mars In 3D
Paris (ESA) Feb 5, 2008
Mars is about to come into 3D focus as never before, thanks to the data from the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). A new high-resolution Digital Terrain Model data set that is about to be released onto the Internet, will allow researchers to obtain new information about the Red Planet in 3D.

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