Cost-cutting NASA eyes three cheap space missions

One of NASA's proposed probes would be sent to the surface of Venus
This file photo shows the planet Venus with sunlight reflecting off its perpetual veil of clouds. NASA has named low-cost missions to Venus, the moon and an asteroid on a shortlist to become its latest space adventure, as the US agency faces astronomical political pressure to cut costs.

NASA has named low-cost missions to Venus, the moon and an asteroid on a shortlist to become its latest space adventure, as the US agency faces astronomical political pressure to cut costs.

The proposed probes -- to the surface of Venus, the moon and to bring back a piece of a primitive asteroid -- must all come with a price tag of less than 650 million dollars, a fraction of the cost of manned space flight.

The agency, in a statement Tuesday, said the winner of the competition will be announced in mid-2011, with the project to launch by the end of 2018.

NASA has faced growing pressure to cut its budget as the US government's debt soars and as the United States buckles under the deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The agency has also seen dwindling political support, with its White House and congressional paymasters reluctant to fund the type of expensive manned space exploration that saw the agency put 12 men on the moon.

A plan to return humans to the moon by 2020 came under withering criticism from a panel tasked by US President to look into the future of space exploration, as the project's initial of 28 billion dollars exploded past 44 billion.

Against this backdrop, the agency is asking scientists to come up with low-cost ideas to further space exploration.

One project led by the University of Colorado's Larry Esposito would send a explorer to Earth's sister planet, Venus.

The explorer would descend through the carbon dioxide-rich Venusian atmosphere, landing on the planet's surface in the hope of gathering evidence that could explain why it is so different from Earth, despite being close in size and .

A second project would place a lander on the moon's southern pole, collecting rocks that are thought to come from the lunar core, offering an insight into how the moon and Earth developed.

Another project would travel to an asteroid to snatch around two ounces (56 grams) of material before returning the payload to Earth for extensive tests.

The winner will be the third in NASA's cost-saving New Frontiers program, which was launched in 2006.

The first mission will fly by Pluto and its moon Charon in 2015 and then a target in the Kuiper belt, at the outer reaches of the Solar System.

"These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to this year," said NASA's Ed Weiler.

"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public."


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NASA Chooses Three Finalists for Future Space Science Mission to Venus, an Asteroid or the Moon

(c) 2009 AFP

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Dec 31, 2009
Why does it seem that we must "re-invent the wheel" every time we send out a space probe? Why can't we just update the design of the rovers on Mars with, for example, a cleaning mechanism for the solar panels, the ability to disengage the drive of a wheel so that it free rolls if it breaks down, and better cameras? Similar to the auto industry with cars. I'd rather have 100 Toyota Yarises out there exploring than a single Lamborghini.

Jan 01, 2010
The idea of government delivering anything like value for money is an optimistic one, Mankind would be better served building something like a giant space radiator like on the shuttle to get rid of the excess heat from global warming ,maybe they could use like seawater or something!

Jan 02, 2010
we have to "re-invent the wheel" because not every mission carries similar payloads and so its not always economical to use the last method you used to get something into space. Plus, for that particular case, the environment is way different. Venus's atmosphere is way more corrosive then mars and the temperature ranges are different as well. That would change the materials your able to use and thus more then likely the design of the system.

Jan 02, 2010
I totally agree that it is too expensive and missions vary. I was using the rovers as an example. What I would like to see is a standardized platform(ie. drive system, power supply, core support structure) that can be semi-mass produced to reduce cost, but allow for different payloads, cameras, and sensors.

Jan 02, 2010
cheap access to outerspace will only be accomplished by a 2 step process
1) private sector in highly developed countries invents readical technologies that allow cheap placement of sub 20 pound loads into outerspace. at least 10x cheaper than currently available

2) those technologies are exported or more likely stolen into less developed countires so that the private sector can be unfettered by military and beauracratic constraints.

the technological challenge and cost can be met and born only by developed countries, and probably only by the u.s., the remaining beauracratic costs must be simply ignored by exporting the technology out of the country to a country with less government.

1)I agree with. 2)How would exporting or stealing technology from our country to a country with less govt allow their private sector to use it to provide cheaper access to space? Would it not be sold to other interests for money or even be taken from the private sector by radical grup

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