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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


NASA budget impacts UA projects

With one project already halted, a proposed NASA budget cut stands to hurt the UA’s planetary science research.

President Barack Obama’s proposal, delivered on Feb. 13, suggested cutting NASA funding by $58.6 million. The area facing the largest cut is planetary science, which, according to the proposal, will drop by $300 million.

Since the UA receives about $18 million from NASA annually, according to planetary sciences department head Tim Swindle, the proposal significantly impacts the UA’s planetary science research and could limit what the department is able to do in the future.

“If the budget stands as proposed, it certainly will not be good for us,” Swindle said in an email. “Since we compete very successfully in virtually every program in NASA planetary science, it is inevitable that we will be hurt in ways we can’t predict.”

The Senate and House of Representatives proposed that funds to planetary science only drop by about $1 million on Thursday, but the proposal is still up in the air.

Alfred McEwen, a professor of planetary geology and the principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, has taken the biggest hit from the proposal at the UA level. He had to halt nearly all production on his latest project, the High Resolution Stereo Color Imager (HiSCI).

The project includes the construction of a camera similar to HiRISE. While it would take photos at a lower resolution than its predecessor, it would be capable of full-color imaging and stereo mapping. The instrument would attach to the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is being built by the European Space Agency, and is due to launch in 2016.

HiSCI’s funding comes from a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, with the former pitching in about $30 million. Since the proposal, McEwen said the project had lost $25 million of its tentative funding, and can no longer proceed with the construction phase of HiSCI. This phase would have started around this time after a final design review in February, which also failed to come to fruition.

“It’s not a big economic impact to the U of A,” McEwen said. “But it’s an important experiment that we want to complete.”
McEwen added that HiSCI was one of the first steps leading to sample return — literally bringing back a sample from Mars for research in a number of facets — which is a roughly $10-billion, multi-project undertaking for NASA.

“They didn’t want to make that commitment at this time,” he said.
Despite the expense of such a lengthy series of projects, McEwen said the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter stood independent from the overall idea of sample return, and shouldn’t have been cut.
“It’s unclear how well they understood that, or whether they were just looking for excuses to cut something,” he said.

Following NASA’s withdrawal, the European Space Agency partnered with Russia in completing the mission, and hope to restore HiSCI is quickly dimming.

In an effort to get HiSCI into space regardless of the vehicle it’s attached to, McEwen is working on design concepts for an entirely different NASA-led mission with a proposed launch in 2018, which remains completely open. How the association can afford this project but not the original is anyone’s guess, McEwen said.

While HiSCI is facing harsh affects from the proposal, OSIRIS-REx has avoided any major funding changes.

OSIRIS-REx began in 2008, winning about $800 million, the highest-paying contract in the UA’s history. It involves taking a sample from an asteroid to be used for research to explore the solar system’s history and discover the potential benefits and dangers of asteroids surrounding Earth, said Dante Lauretta, an associate professor of cosmochemistry and planet formation and the project’s principal investigator.

OSIRIS-REx is funded through NASA’s New Frontiers program, a competitive program that aims to fund roughly two high-profile missions every 10 years, Lauretta said. Similar to other projects of its kind, OSIRIS-REx is a collaborative effort between the UA as well as other institutions and companies.

Each of the partners will receive a certain portion of the funding, with the UA collecting about $225 million by the end of the project.

While the terms of funding for OSIRIS-REx have already been negotiated, Lauretta said that anything can change at this point, and the proposal process is always ongoing. Furthermore, he said the budgeting process is often an unorganized one, with the largely bipartisan Congress that typically doesn’t line out the official budget until several months into the fiscal year. When this happens, Lauretta said, Congress usually reverts back to the previous year’s budget until next year’s can be determined.
Regardless of how the budget for 2013 turns out, Lauretta said his project is well off for the months to come. Its roots in both science and homeland security give it an edge that not every project has.

“It’s a real challenge for the people who work at NASA headquarters to keep projects like this moving forward,” he said, “when your budget is constantly a moving target, the subject of a political battle and not getting done by the deadlines that things are supposed to get done by.”

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