NASA's Approach to Future Exploration
In the lengthy tale of cosmic creation, one of the most interesting chapters is the formation and nature of our solar system - humankind's celestial backyard. A vast region made up of the Sun, planets, moons, comets, asteroids and other small debris, our solar system has always inspired a sense of wonder and raises many fundamental questions: Are we alone in a cold, impersonal cosmos? Are there habitable worlds other than our own? How did Earth and its complex oasis of life come to be?
Through NASA, the United States has committed itself to the continued exploration of Earth, the solar system and beyond. One of NASA's primary goals is to "design sets of future missions that will conduct robotic exploration across the solar system for scientific purposes and to support human exploration. This includes the exploration of the moons of Jupiter, asteroids and other bodies to search for evidence of life, to understand the history of the Solar system, and to search for potential resources.
The NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is addressing this strategic goal with a program of planetary science designed to answer the following questions:
- How did the Sun's family of planets and minor bodies originate?
- How did the solar system evolve to its current diverse state?
- What are the characteristics of the solar system that led to the origin of life?
- How did life begin and evolve on Earth and has it evolved elsewhere in the solar system?
- What are the hazards and resources in the solar system environment that will affect the extension of human presence in space?
It also addresses the following research objectives:
- Understand the processes that determine the history and future of habitability in the solar system, including the origin and evolution of Earth's biosphere and the character and extent of pre-biotic chemistry on Mars and other worlds.
- Identify and investigate past or present habitable environments on Mars and other worlds, and determine if there is or ever has been life elsewhere in the solar system.
- Explore the space environment to discover potential hazards to humans and to search for resources that would enable human presence.
NASA's Solar System Exploration Roadmap is the subset of a larger collection of potential missions, known as the Design Reference Mission (DRM) set.
But how do we construct an economically rational and technologically achievable ordering of planetary targets and exploration? First, we examine the highest priority science, recommended by the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC's Decadal Survey lists science targets and potential mission architectures in various mission categories to achieve them. Second, NASA looks at these recommendations and refines the mission architectures to have a better understanding the implementation and costs. Third, these missions have to fit into NASA's available annual budget, for these missions bridged through over several years. Fourth, these missions are then selected based on either a competitive process for small and medium missions, or by directing them to a NASA center from where the mission is managed. These missions should also account for technology readiness, and programmatic constraints, such as budget, implementation and scheduling issues.
Potential mission architectures for future missions are identified in NASA's Design Reference Mission (DRM) set, reflecting input from the scientific community and are used to assist in strategic road mapping for solar system exploration through the next decade and beyond. While this is an oversubscribed set of missions, not all will be selected, for scoping of future missions and mission concepts these reflect potential mission concepts and architectures that are in line with the priorities of the NRC, identified in the Decadal Survey.
Next: Design Reference Missions and the Decadal Survey