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NASA Funding Cut on Planetary Science May Early Terminate Programs like Mars Curiosity

On 3 December, NASA convened an informal meeting announcing a restructuring of its various research programs in planetary science division. The meeting caused a big stir – it not only threatening planetary scientists’ living, but might also lead to early termination of some important programs such as Mars Curiosity and the Cassini Saturn probe.

It is indeed a big action. The original programs will be reorganized into five themes – Solar System workings, emerging worlds, exobiology, habitable worlds and Solar System observations. However, the biggest and probably most popular among the new areas – Solar System workings – is not likely to be funded until February 2015.

Each year, NASA allocate US$1.2 billion to planetary science division and almost all U.S. planetary scientist live on it. Some older and more established researchers can get funding from individual missions like the Cassini Saturn probe or Mars Curiosity. On the contrary, those younger scientists must depend more heavily on the approximately $250-million pot known as the research and analysis budget. According to a 2010 survey, this program covered more than half of American planetary scientists’ salaries. If the funding for a specific program is cut, many researchers might not be able to live and have to switch to another jobs. For instance, Scott Guzewich, a postdoctoral fellow who is studying on the Martian atmosphere at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said: “Now I have to skip 2014 application and submit in 2015. If no good news in 2015, then I guess it is time for me to go to Walmart.”

Researchers are not the only victims. James Green, head of planetary science at NASA, points out that a high-level NASA review is likely to have to decide between shutting down either the Cassini mission to Saturn or the Mars Curiosity. Both of them are very successful missions that cost about $60 million per year, a level that Green has claimed that the division simply can’t afford in a long run.


An image of Dione taken by the Cassini. If the Cassini mission stops, planetary scientists may manipulate it to crash to Mars surface to avoid the possibility of contaminating the animate Saturn moon. *Image source: wallpapergate.com

James Green also noted in a statement emphasizing future programs such as the New Horizon probe, which will reach Pluto in 2015. However, a lot of researchers don’t buy that argument. “Such restructuring of the research missions is major and done in a way that many scientists are at risk of having to look for other jobs. This has not been well thought through.” Says Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute.

For many researchers, even if this plan does not take into effect, it is too late for them to choose their career. Gizewich says:”I always wanted to become a planetary scientists, and I would like to keep doing it. I picked up a really bad time to get in – but it was the only time I had.”


*Image source: Depressed Alien & xkcd

Source: Nature.