Tag Archives: planetary missions

New power source for planetary missions?

Research at JPL has developed new materials called skutterudites that have the potential of increasing the efficiency and power output of the radioisotope electric generators used on deep space missions where solar power will not work.

The new eMMRTG would provide 25 percent more power than Curiosity’s generator at the start of a mission, according to current analyses. Additionally, since skutterudites naturally degrade more slowly that the current materials in the MMRTG, a spacecraft outfitted with an eMMRTG would have at least 50 percent more power at the end of a 17-year design life than it does today.

“Having a more efficient thermoelectric system means we’d need to use less plutonium. We could go farther, for longer and do more,” Bux said.

This being NASA research, they are moving somewhat slowly in testing and confirming whether these new materials will work. They hope that after passing further reviews in 2017 and 2018 the agency might finally approve their use in subsequent missions.

A NASA senior review of all planetary missions?

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.

Funding for new unmanned planetary missions under threat

Now for some squealing from planetary scientists: Funding for new unmanned planetary missions under threat.

Note that I agree with Squyres: money spent for planetary research is worth it. However, considering the state of the federal budget, we all have to recognize that nothing is sacrosanct, until that budget gets under control.