NASA is in financial trouble for a broader Earth science mission.
NASA will allow three of its aging Earth sciences missions to be included in an upcoming review of extended missions in the face of budgetary pressures that could affect its entire portfolio of missions.
In a town hall held at a town hall on Dec. 15 during the Autumn Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, NASA officials revealed that they had invited Aqua, Aura and Terra missions to propose proposals for the 2023 final review of Earth science missions in their extended phase.
The three spacecraft which were created between the years 1999 and 2004 remain functional , however they are running low on propellant for stationkeeping. The spacecraft are beginning to shift from their initial operational orbits. This has led to questions about the science they perform and the data continuity.
Julie Robinson, deputy director of NASA’s Earth science division, said NASA gathered feedback on these missions through an information request and an online workshop held in November that was attended by over 500 participants. “One outcome of that is that Terra, Aqua and Aura will be invited to the senior review,” she explained. In a review of senior status missions that have completed their primary missions argue for continuing funds to expand their missions.
Being invited to attend the senior review there is no guarantee that Missions will manage to get funds. Robinson stated that the forthcoming senior review is likely to be difficult due to the limited funds available for mission extension.
“The senior review is not going to be an easy one this year,” she stated. “We don’t have the money in the budget to extend every mission that comes to the senior review.” The agency is going to ask the panel reviewing the mission to provide advice on the various trades it could do among missions.
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NASA has requested over $2.4 billion to fund Earth research in their budget for the fiscal year 2023 proposal. But the omnibus spending bill passed in late December offered just $2.2 billion to Earth sciences. This is more than $130 million over 2022, it is a time when NASA is accelerating the work of its range of Earth System Observatory missions and other initiatives.
In the town hall, one scientist claimed they were “pretty shocked” that NASA might even think about not extending these three missions based on their success and the large community of scientists who use the results. Robinson was back to discussing problems with finances that affect the entire Earth research program.
“In the case of Terra, Aqua and Aura, one of the challenges we have is that these systems, because they’ve been operating so long, they’re really expensive,” she added.
NASA’s budget request for fiscal year 2023 anticipated the expenditure of $30.7 million for the operation that include Terra as well Aqua in addition to $20.5 million for Aura. One aspect of the senior review will be looking at ways to reduce these operating costs, but she did give some estimates on the potential range of possible reductions.
The efforts are taking place in the midst of NASA grappling with the possibility of cost hikes due to AOS, the Earth System Observatory, notably the Atmospheric Observing System (AOS). A review by an independent expert discovered that AOS as it is currently constructed could run $2.4 billion, or $500 million more than NASA’s estimate. This could cause NASA to cut back on or even replace the two AOS instruments.
“There are some very painful trades that take place in the Earth System Observatory. There are also a lot of painful trades involved in deciding the amount of funds to invest in extended missions, and how to run these missions,” she said. “I can promise we will never make everybody happy with those trades.”