Here’s a tidbit I just spotted on the EPOXI (formerly Deep Impact) status website, buried in a November 1, 2011 update::
Meanwhile, NASA has decided that there will be a senior review of all operating planetary exploration missions. That will likely include a review of the status of the Deep Impact Flyby spacecraft to determine whether an additional extended mission should be approved. Decisions will not occur until early 2012.
Though Deep Impact is still a functioning spacecraft in orbit around the sun, up until this notice I had not heard of any plans to use it again after its flyby of Comet Hartley-2 in 2010. However, there is no reason its cameras could not be used for astronomy, though unfortunately its high resolution camera has a focus problem which prevents it from taking the sharpest images.
However, the timing of this review of planetary missions, combined with the story last week that the Obama administration might end all funding for future planetary missions, is intriguing. I wonder if they are tied together in some way. That the notice above says the decision will be made in “early 2012” — the moment when the Obama administration will unveil its 2012 federal budget recommendations — strongly suggests that they are linked.
Could that the administration be thinking it can salvage the bad press it will receive for shutting down all future planetary missions by spending a small amount on extending missions already in space? Or is this planetary review another indication that the rumors are true and the administration plans to end the planetary science program entirely?
Unfortunately, I am speculating here, without any real information. Stay tuned to find out.