May 2, 2000, 1:40 PM
Astronomers detail low-cost planetary missions
By Deborah Zabarenko
LAUREL, Md. (Reuters) - They plan to visit Mars, Mercury, even Jupiter's
icy moon Europa, but the world's space scientists acknowledged Tuesday they
will have to do it on a budget.
Influenced by NASA's controversial "cheaper-faster-better" philosophy,
astronomers gathered for a meeting on low-cost
missions around the solar system where the presentations occasionally
sounded more like management-speak than science.
Kenneth Atkins, who manages a program that aims to fly through a comet's
tail and bring back interstellar particles from it,
said the spacecraft had to be developed with "a large healthy dose of
project interdependence" and "communications and information sharing."
Atkins' project, known as Stardust, is part of NASA's Discovery series of
relatively cheap solar system missions -- Stardust's development budget is
a low $117 million -- pushed by NASA chief Dan Goldin over the last decade.
Goldin wanted to shift NASA's priorities from the multi-billion-dollar
programs that sometimes took a decade to complete.
He acknowledged some of the smaller, quicker missions were risky, but vowed
not to be "afraid of failure."
These low-cost projects, none of which put humans in space, sparked harsh
criticism last year following the demise of two
Mars missions in the space of three months.
The $165 million Mars Polar Lander went silent before its scheduled
touchdown in December, and the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter was
destroyed due to an embarrassing mix-up over metric and English measurements.
At Tuesday's meeting at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics
Laboratory mid-way between Washington and
Baltimore, Atkins and others revealed their strategies for doing often
jaw-dropping astronomy with very little money.
For Atkins and his team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the
key to working with folks at the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, at the University of
Washington in Seattle and Lockheed-Martin in
Colorado was something he called a "virtual meeting room."
When they needed a decision quickly, they used pagers and cellphones to
call scientists and get them to a computer where
they could view the problem on the screen, simultaneously with others in
other locations, Atkins said.
EUROPE TO MERCURY, JAPAN TO MARS
For the European Space Agency (ESA), a collaboration between 15 countries,
"cheaper-faster-better" has never been official
policy, but there has still been pressure to cut costs.
ESA is considering launching the Mars Express, which aims to orbit the Red
Planet starting in late 2003, and the Mercury
Cornerstone mission, which could land on the closest planet to the Sun and
send back data on Mercury.
"This mission is testing a new management approach," ESA's Gordon Whitcomb
told the scientists, referring to the ESA
Mars mission. Among other things, the mission will involve industry in
selecting the mission's payload, thus fostering
competition and the use of the best industrial staff because they will know
the mission is a reality and not just a study,
ESA also plans to send an unmanned mission to the Moon, with a launch in
For ESA, small missions "are a proving ground for new technology and a
training ground for managers and engineers," Whitcomb said.
Meantime, Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS)
launched its own Mars mission, called Nozomi, and
plans to launch a mission to retrieve a sample of an asteroid, called Muses-C.
NASA, for its part, plans to continue with its Discovery missions,
including a possible future flight toward Jupiter and its
mysterious moon Europa, where some scientists believe a liquid ocean lies
under an icy crust.
Tom Krimigis, who heads the Applied Physics Laboratory's space department,
noted that at the first of these meetings on
low-cost planetary exploration, back in 1994, astronomers spoke about a
revolution in such voyages, referring to a new
internationalism in space investigation and a new emphasis on
"The question," Krimigis told the scientists at this year's meeting, "is
whether we'll survive the revolution."
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