What we’re losing with cuts to planetary exploration

Yesterday’s WH budget proposal for NASA, with deep cuts to future planetary science to the whopping tune of $300 million , didn’t exactly come as a shock. That’s the news reporters have been hearing and writing about for weeks. But if those changes are implemented it comes at a price. In this case, the price could be postponing the single greatest scientific discovery ever made.

One mission is already in the pipeline. The Mars Science Lab is a sophisticated rover currently en route to the Red Planet, on schedule to land at Gale Crater in August 2012. Dubbed Curiousity, it will have many times the capacity of the last three rovers including better cameras, greater range and resolution, and next gen onboard analytical tools, including chemical sensors designed to detect biosignatures and focus stacking for image processing. Its primary mission is to confirm signs of ancient water, look for remains of the building blocks of life, examine minerology, past and present climatology, and in short single out possible places for future missions to look for past or present life. It’s those future missions where the cuts really hurt.

Mars became center stage in the search for ET life when tantalizing chemical signatures were found in a meteorite recovered in Antarctica in 1984 (The rock known as ALH 84001 was originally chipped off the planet millions of years ago and eventually fell to earth). Moreover, with Spirit and Opportunity it’s become a consensus position that Mars once had vast standing lakes and oceans. In addition traces of methane were detected in the thin Martian atmosphere and those traces were found to be 1) localized and 2) waxing and waning with the planet’s long summers and winters. On earth methane is produced by scads of biological sources, many of them microbial and some of them extremophiles, or by geological process such as volcanoes. But there are no known analogous geological processes on Mars today. Water, the meteorite, and methane, all taken together, have astrobiologists — and even lowly bloggers like me — plenty excited about the prospect of past life on Mars … and maybe even some hardy, scattered, surviving descendants?

It’s possible. On earth today there are methane producing microbes in caves, in ice pockets, in superheated water, soil, inside rock, and even inside you. They are incredibly tough and tenacious, thought to represent one of the earliest forms of bacteria like microbes to evolve on earth, known collectively as Archaea. These were some of the first known living things to appear on earth, and they appear on earth billions of years ago — when Mars still had water! It’s even possible earth and Mars exchanged biotic or prebiotic material thru impacts. If so, since the smaller, more distant world would have cooled quicker in the wake of heavy bombardment, life or its antecedents could have arisen on Mars first. We might all be, ultimately, Martians. If such microbes existed on Mars at any time in the past, and exist on earth today, one way or another its evidence that life could well be exist elsewhere in the solar system and throughout the universe.

You might think Archaea hitching a ride on meteors to other planets would be impossible, meteors are sterilized by heat during reentry, right? Mostly, yes, the medium-sized ones anyway. But very small particles have so much surface area compared to their volume that they might be able to radiate the heat without warming up much. And large objects can plow in with their interiors unaffected by reentry heat, releasing dead material that could act like a molecular scaffold for native precursors, or perhaps even unleashing the real pulsing, breathing, slimy thing on a barren, blazing hot earth, or distant outer moons, asteroids, and maybe even Kuiper Belt Objects all the way to the Oort Cloud.

There is no better, cheaper, accessible place to try and settle this great question than Mars. Is there anything more exciting in all of science?

Two missions that would follow-up on all those fascinating ideas and, more importantly, any leads generated by Curiosity, are jointly funded by NASA and the European Space Agency. They are slated for launch at the end of this decade — or at least they were. Because those are precisely the missions most affected by the proposed cuts. Phil puts it in perspective:

(Bad Astronomy) — In other words, the amount of money being cut from Mars exploration is equal to what we were spending on the War on Terror in just 15 hours. … You might want to read that again. For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars, look for signs of life on another planet …

If those cuts go through, we will be bailing on our commitment to our ESA partners after they, and we, have already spent a considerable sum of money. And we’ll be postponing the missions that could settle the most important question in science, indeed for our very species, once and for all, by years or even decades.


  1. Anri says

    I have often said (hyperbole as it may be) that we could have gone to Mars, but chose to go to Iraq instead.

    I wonder what the space program would look like with that level of commitment of monies, work and time. It is quite literally a crying shame that I am now essentially assured of never knowing that within my lifetime.

  2. The Lorax says

    Let it be known that I nearly had a heart attack when I read that cuts were being made, and then I saw a picture of Curiosity. I’ve been cheering that little bug on since I heard of it, and I actually cried when it launched.

    Anri, I read somewhere that NASA originally planned an Apollo-style Mars mission for the late 70’s or early 80’s, if they kept the funding that they were getting. As we know, they didn’t. So, think about that for a few moments. With massive wads of government cash flowing through NASA and into the private sector for things like: faster, smaller computers, space habitats, food preservation, long-distance communication and tracking, and in-situ repairs, it’s plain to see that we would have advanced very quickly in areas such as home computer technology, space colonies, food preservation, telecommunications and GPS devices, and 3D printing. How about this for a thick, hot, steamy shot of perspective: Imagine iPads in the mid 90’s. With more funding to NASA, we would be 10 to 15 years ahead of where we are now.

    If NASA got the funding it deserved, Anri, you and me, we wouldn’t be talking about a probe on its way to Mars… we’d be talking about where on Mars we’d be spending our summer vacations.

    I mean, for FSM’s sake! We had such momentum going through Apollo! In the mid 50’s, we could barely launch a fucking radio into orbit, and between ’69 and ’72, just three years, we sent twelve fucking guys to walk around on the Moon. Fifteen years! Fifteen fucking years we were able to make that leap! If only… if only we had stuck to it… yes, we beat the Soviets… but if we stuck to it for the science, we wouldn’t be living in a better world… we’d be living in better worlds.

    … I’m gonna go hang my head for a while now…

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars…

    My friends, we can have both!

    How much trouble would it be to set up the next Mars probe so that it pops off a couple of RPGs at Deimos on its way in?


Leave a Reply