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December 22, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 12


Most of the science mission concepts that could utilize the Constellation program’s unique capabilities are likely to be “prohibitively expensive,” according to a report by the National Research Council.

The Constellation program’s suite of vehicles, NASA’s first human-rated systems in a generation with the capacity to travel beyond low-Earth orbit, will offer new research opportunities for scientists. In recognition of this, NASA requested that the National Research Council (NRC) evaluate a number of mission concepts for space science missions. The NRC studied 17 concepts, seeking to determine if each “offered the potential for a significant scientific advancement,” and whether or not the concepts would benefit from the Constellation system. (Of the 17 proposals collected, 11 were “Vision Missions” studied at the initiation of NASA between 2004 and 2006, while the remaining 6 were submitted in response to the NRC’s request for information.) It considered a number of criteria, including scientific objectives, technical feasibility, cost, and the benefits of using the Constellation system as opposed to other means of reaching space. The NRC concluded that all 17 concepts had high scientific merit, and that 12 of the 17 would benefit from the Constellation system. It noted that most of the five mission concepts that would not benefit from Constellation could fit within other existing launch vehicles.

The NRC emphasized that it did not receive any proposals related to earth science. It acknowledged that “the Vision Mission effort that sponsored many of the mission concepts evaluated in this study did not include Earth sciences which at the time were separated organizationally from space science,” and concluded, “It is possible that if they are invited to consider it, the Earth science community may find uses for Constellation that are not readily apparent.”

The authors sounded a cautionary note in regard to the cost of these science opportunities. “Virtually all of the science mission concepts that could take advantage of Constellation’s unique capabilities are likely to be prohibitively expensive,” they observed. “Several times in the past NASA has begun ambitious space science missions that ultimately proved too expensive for the agency to pursue. Examples include the Voyager-Mars mission and the Prometheus program and its Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter spacecraft.”

Read the full NRC report “Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASAs Constellation System.”

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