Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NASA raids other budgets to fund Mars effort

WASHINGTON — NASA is starting the planning process for its scaled-back robotic Mars exploration program immediately and will use 2012 funds previously slotted for work on outer planets missions to shore up the effort.

NASA will spend about $30 million in 2012 on its retooled Mars exploration program, a cross-agency effort known in budget documents as Mars Next Generation.

In total, NASA plans to spend about $700 million on the mission. It is tentatively penciled in for launch in either 2018 or 2020. Mars Next Generation was conceived to fill the void NASA's planetary science program created after big cuts in the White House's 2013 budget request forced NASA's exit from the joint ExoMars sample cache-and-return campaign with the European Space Agency and Russia. Those missions remain slated for 2016 and 2018.

"NASA is committed to develop an integrated strategy to ensure that the next steps for the robotic Mars exploration program will support science, as well as longer-term human exploration and technology goals," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Bolden's letter accompanied NASA's 2012 operating plan, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

Of the $30 million NASA is spending on Mars Next Generation planning this year, $20 million will come from money the agency expects to have left after paying to close out its ExoMars work and fund ongoing missions. The other $10 million is being taken from the Planetary Science Division's outer planets program, which is being downsized as NASA tables plans for a large-scale mission to a planetary destination beyond Mars.

Another $24 million was diverted from outer planets for "foundational technology work on critical sensor development in support of the revised future Mars mission as well as other future planetary missions, as recommended by the recent decadal survey," according to the operating plan.

NASA has to date spent about $45 million on four instruments for the 2016 ExoMars mission. That work will cease once all the instruments reach preliminary design review, Jim Green, NASA's planetary science director, said. Closeout costs for the 2016 instrument programs will not be known until later, Bolden said in his letter to lawmakers.

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