POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 13, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 1:25 a.m. HST, Mar 16, 2012
Just as NASA is on the cusp of answering the most fascinating questions about Mars — is there, was there, or could there be life there? — the money needed to provide the answers is about to be abruptly withdrawn, a victim of President Barack Obama's budget request for 2013, scientists say.
Two ambitious missions that NASA had hoped to launch to Mars, in 2016 and 2018, will be canceled. The first would have sent an orbiter to measure gases in the Martian atmosphere — methane in particular, since methane does not last long. Its presence could suggest that Martian microbes are busy at work emitting the gas (though other explanations are also possible).
The second, in 2018, would have set the stage to fulfill the longstanding desire of scientists to bring pieces of Mars back to Earth for close-up study with the full arsenal of instruments available in their laboratories. Now the prospect of bringing Martian rocks to Earth is likely pushed to the mid- or late-2020s, all because of budget cuts.
"The pipeline is being shut off, and that's not what anyone wants," said Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit group founded by Carl Sagan and others who wanted to foster interest in outer space. "We are closer than anyone has ever been to discovering life on another world."
Obama's budget request for 2013 calls for cutting NASA's robotic exploration of the solar system by 20 percent, to $1.2 billion, and the Mars program would be particularly hard hit. Already, NASA has withdrawn from a collaboration with the European Space Agency that would have launched the missions in 2016 and 2018, angering the Europeans and disappointing astrobiologists and planetary scientists.
"We seem to have gotten the drastic cuts relative to other parts of NASA," said Raymond E. Arvidson, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "Why?"
There are still a few tidbits left. A NASA rover called Curiosity is to land in August and look in ancient sediments for carbon-based molecules that could serve as the building blocks of life. Its instruments could also confirm the controversial claim that Mars' atmosphere contains methane. But Curiosity will not be able to provide definitive answers to the question of "Could there have been life on Mars?"
And a modest orbiter mission called Maven, to study Mars' upper atmosphere, remains on track for launching next year. By measuring the escape of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor to space, scientists hope to gain insight into the past climate of Mars.
But scientists are dismayed that they are being hamstrung on the brink of major breakthroughs. The problem, they say, stems from NASA trying to cram too many big-ticket items into a $17.7 billion budget — $1.75 billion less than what Congress had promised a couple of years ago.
"Right now NASA's Mars science exploration budget is being decimated," Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said in testimony before Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "We're not going back to the moon. Plans for astronauts to visit Mars or anywhere beyond low-Earth orbit are delayed until the 2030s on funding not yet allocated, overseen by a Congress and a president to be named later."
Tyson implored Congress to look beyond the near-term budget travails, noting that of each dollar in taxes sent to Washington, only half a cent is spent on NASA. He told the senators they should double NASA's budget.
"The moment the culture wants to innovate, that penny on a dollar becomes an investment," Tyson said, arguing that the nation had benefited greatly from the halo effects of the space program in the 1960s and 1970s and has been coasting since.
The sidelining of the Mars program is one of several depressing developments at NASA. The space shuttles will never fly again, and the agency's reliance on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station is likely to be extended, because financing of commercial companies to take over that task has been limited.
The James Webb Space Telescope, meant as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is delayed and over budget, now at least six years from being ready. The new heavy-lift rocket that is to take astronauts on faraway missions will not carry any astronauts until 2021. All of the big projects are slipping into the distant future.
In a letter sent March 5, a group of Mars scientists that provides feedback to NASA said it was "appalled" by the proposed budget cuts.
"Among the many dire impacts, the cuts threaten the very existence of the Mars exploration program which has been one of the crown jewels of the agency's planetary exploration," wrote David J. Des Marais, a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in California and chairman of the group.
Because the Curiosity is already finished and launched, "From this point now forward, there is nothing active in the queue," Des Marais said in an interview. "The gap begins now."
Agency officials strongly dispute the notion that NASA is being idled. "We still have very exciting things to do in science," said John M. Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science.
While NASA will not have anything to launch to Mars in 2016, Grunsfeld said the agency was aiming to come up with a new mission to fill the 2018 slot. A planning group appointed by Grunsfeld is to provide a draft framework for a revised, cheaper Mars program this month.
The Europeans could possibly turn to Russia as a new partner for the Mars missions that NASA will no longer pursue. While NASA has laid the groundwork of Mars exploration for the past 15 years, other nations could conceivably swoop in for the most significant discoveries.
But only NASA has had any success at landing on Mars, and more likely, whatever mysteries Mars holds will remain mysteries for years longer.