Playing Bachelor with Planetary Science

I thought of today's article on the news that NASA is down to four finalists for its next Discovery-class planetary science mission: two Venus orbiters, a probe to Jupiter's volcanic moon Io, and a probe to Neptune's icy moon Triton (which is the one I'm rooting for!). But what exactly does this mean?

I've always been a humongous space fan, but until I actually started following space closely when I got to college, my reaction when major planetary exploration missions made it into mainstream news was the same as everyone else's: surprise. For instance, when New Horizons flew by Pluto in July 2015, my response was some mix of, "Woah, Pluto looks so cool! Wait, we've never visited Pluto before? And hold up, New Horizons launched 9 years ago and had been en route to Pluto all this time? Why'd I only hear about it now?!" Since then, I've become way more diligent about following our planetary probes, not just when they reach their destinations, or even when they launch from Earth, but as far back as mission conception and selection. And quite frankly, the selection process is just as exciting; I like to think of it as NASA playing bachelor with proposals from the scientific community!

Though famous for reaching Pluto in 2015, New Horizons' story begins way before that. Launched in 2006, funded in 2003, conceived in the 1990s!

I do agree though that keeping track of all the missions in development is a heavy task, so today I focus on the three Solar System Exploration programs - Discovery, New Frontiers, and Flagship-class missions, that have produced the most famous tours around our cosmic neighborhood to date. There are two primary criteria that distinguish missions under these three programs: Cost and principle investigator. Cost is easy to explain; the cheapest is Discovery, whose missions generally come in at less than half a billion dollars. The Flagship program on the other hand handles the multibillion dollar missions like Hubble, which has cost more than $10 billion over the last 30 years, while New Frontiers missions fall in between the two

Best place to learn about all these missions? The Wikipedia pages of the Discovery, New Frontiers, and Flagship programs! 

Principal investigator is a little more nuanced. Flagship missions, being the oldest, most established, and most ambitious, are set by decadal surveys and specifically directed towards a NASA center or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In contrast, New Frontiers and Discovery missions are newer programs aimed at providing faster and cheaper planetary science. Rather than drawing up mission ideas themselves, NASA solicits proposals from the broad scientific community and picks the one it deems has the highest scientific merit. For example, for the next New Frontiers mission set to be launched, the Dragonfly Titan quadcopter in 2026, the Principal Investigator is Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory whose peer review proposal was chosen by NASA last year

We're literally going to send a nuclear powered helicopter drone to fly the smoggy atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon!

Which leaves us with the gut-wrenching reality of selecting NASA's planetary science mission manifest - for every amazing, boundary-pushing proposal picked, countless other equally worthy missions are passed up and doomed to oblivion. It's more than just rejection; a typical planetary science mission proposal demands years of herculean effort from a researcher's career, so being snubbed is a devastating blow to a scientist's life's work (I HIGHLY recommend this Scientific American article. It perfectly captures the process and pain of mission selection). In other words, there's no shortage of attractive suitors, but as the highly sought-after bachelor, NASA can only hand a rose to one mission at a time.

What's my solution to the problem? Easy - just raise NASA's budget ;) More money, more missions, more happy scientists, and more knowledge for the benefit of all mankind

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