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Cassini vs. Curiosity: Who Will Suffer the Space Budget Axe?



In July, Cassini took this spectacular image of Saturn with Earth and the other inner planets in the background. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI


NASA could soon be facing an awful choice. The agency, feeling a budgetary squeeze from Congress, might not be able to fund all its robotic planetary exploration missions after next year.

This year NASA received $16.9 billion, which may sound like a lot but, once adjusted for inflation, is roughly what the agency got back in 1986. Just $1.27 billion of that budget goes into funding all robotic exploration in the solar system. And most space policy experts don?t see that number going up anytime in the near future. In 2014, NASA will put many of its robotic missions through what?s known as a senior review. Administrators will have to decide which of its missions will yield the highest scientific return and may recommend canceling some of them.

And that?s where some sad calculus comes in.

?We have two very expensive flagship missions, Cassini and Curiosity,? said NASA?s planetary science director Jim Green, speaking to one of the agency?s advisory councils on Nov. 5. ?So, this particular competition we?ll have to do very carefully.?


You wouldn?t think the Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since 2004, was in trouble. It has lately been beaming back incredible data about the planet?s rings and moons. A recent image from the mission (above) showing Earth, Venus, and Mars from Saturn was widely shared on the internet and even landed on the front page of the New York Times last week.


But NASA seems to want to focus its dwindling energy on Mars. It is scheduled to launch the MAVEN mission today, which will explore the Red Planet?s atmosphere, and it has at least two more Mars missions in the pipeline but little else in store for the rest of the solar system. The Curiosity rover is the new kid on the planetary exploration block and a media darling. Most in the planetary science community would bet that in a head-to-head competition, Cassini loses.

That would be a shame. Cassini has already been an incredible mission, and scientists estimate it has at least four more years of life left in it. Cassini?s operating budget is about $60 million per year while Curiosity?s runs to roughly $50 million. That?s about what the Department of Defense has budgeted for 3-D printer research and is less than half of what it?s estimated to spend maintaining its golf courses. The Cassini mission has already cost $3.26 billion to launch and operate.

Curiosity certainly doesn?t deserve to be put down either; both missions could be spared if NASA got a little more money. But Congress is a divided and quarrelsome body these days. If NASA is forced to chose, Cassini could end its mission at Saturn sometime in 2015, two years before its fuel runs out in late-2017. You might be thinking that the mission is going to end anyway, so who cares about those last two or three years? But those years could make a world of scientific difference.

Given the opportunity, Cassini could provide more unprecedented data about Saturn?s many mysterious moons as well as new findings and images of its beautiful rings. Surprising discoveries could appear in the coming years, and the mission offers a front row seat to marvel at the most stunning planet in the solar system. There are campaigns to pressure Congress to increase NASA?s planetary science funding, but such efforts might just turn out to be too little, and too late for Cassini.


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NASA should just open a mega church to raise funds.

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