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The REAL News In Planetary Science
Columnist: Dr. James Green

The REAL News In Planetary Science
31 January 2011

ast Wednesday, I presented the status of planetary science activities to the Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS). This meeting is open to the community, but few people were able to make it to the meeting since Washington, DC, had a horrendous snowstorm. I would like to take this opportunity to get everyone up to speed as to the nature of the meeting.

As background, the PSS is made up of ~20 members of the science community, meets four times a year, and reports to the NASA Advisory Committee, which reports to the NASA Administrator. The PSS meetings provide an important opportunity to reflect on the status of the planetary program, engage in dialogue, and receive advice about the direction we are headed. I value those sessions.

From a mission perspective the real news is that the planetary science community is in the process of pulling off one of the greatest eras in planetary science, ever. A great many people at JPL, NASA centers, government labs, and universities are working at their maximum physical and mental capacities to make a series of events occur that will astound the world and create a huge leap forward in planetary science. We are pulling this off with prudent management and conservative approaches under the toughest economic times I have seen in my entire career. Without a passed full year FY 2011 budget, this challenge is not over.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is not just another rover. It is the most complicated rover that has ever been built and the most sophisticated astrobiology laboratory to be put on the surface of another planet. It will take one huge step in the direction of "Seeking Signs of Life" and understanding the habitability of Mars. MSL is nearly done and will be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in June. What I reported to the PSS is that we need to beef up MSL's reserves to make sure it has funding for the "unknown-unknowns" that might occur, and we can do this with some belt tightening.

Planetary's Juno, GRAIL, and MSL missions are all in their peak year funding, and only MSL will need more reserves to get it through launch. You will probably never read it anywhere else but here, both Juno and GRAIL are projected to come in under their external cost commitments, i.e., budgets! We are on track to launching these fabulous missions and doing other astounding things.

What else did I talk about at the PSS?

In November, with the Hartley 2 flyby, we completed one of our two comet encounters. The next one is a flyby of Tempel 1 on Valentine's Day. We will get MESSENGER into orbit around Mercury on March 17th. The spacecraft Dawn will enter orbit around the second largest asteroid, Vesta, in July. Then we have our Juno, GRAIL, and MSL launches, and soon after that the MSL Curiosity rover will land on Mars. Sometime during all the excitement the Opportunity rover will rollup to a crater about the size of the District of Columbia. On top of that we are developing the MAVEN and LADEE missions and evaluating the next New Frontiers and Discovery missions.

EPOXI's encounter with Hartley 2 showed us a physical process we had never seen before, making scientists go back to the drawing board on how comets evolve towards the end of their life. And that was just the start of our "Year of the Solar System."

I can't wait for the next planetary event to take place. What amazing new things will we learn?

This is going to be an awesome year. Stay tuned!


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About: Dr. James Green
Photo of Dr. James Green
Dr. Green is the Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters. He views his job as the keeper of NASA's planetary program and the top advocate for that program to flourish and grow.
Read More by Dr. James Green
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Last Updated: 26 Apr 2011