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Earth Sciences Reign at NASA

As expected, the earth sciences program is the big winner in the 2010 National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget, which will go up 5%, or $900 million, to $18.7 billion. In contrast, the budget for astrophysics, already insufficient for several missions in the pipeline, takes a hit. At the same time, the president threw a wild card into the NASA deck by announcing a review of the Bush Administration's plans for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The outside panel of experts will be led by Norman Augustine, former CEO of space industry giant Lockheed-Martin. The review, due by August, will consider alternatives to the agency's current goals for space exploration and the rockets and spacecraft needed, says acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese. "But first I anticipate that they are going to ... assess the status of where we are at and the progress we are making." He adds, "clearly, if we are on the wrong path, we should change."

Those decisions could ultimately have a big impact on the science division, which under the proposed 2010 budget shrinks by 1.8%, to $4.48 billion.

That amount does not include the $400 million NASA received from the stimulus package, and NASA projects's long-term growth to $5.1 billion in 2013. The Earth Science program, one of four in the division, gets $25 million more in 2010, for a total of $1.4 billion, to support climate change research and monitoring. There would be a $95 million bump in 2011, and $50 million boosts in each year through 2014.

Scolese says the boost allows the agency to complete foundational missions, such as Glory, which measures aerosols, and Aquarius, a mission to measure the ocean’s salinity. The funding would also put the Thermal Infrared Sensor back on the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and allow for the advancement of four missions highlighted in the Earth Science Decadal Survey: Soil Moisture Active and Passive; Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite II; Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice; and Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory.

The $1.3 billion planetary science budget would increase by $20.6 million in 2010. Scolese says NASA still plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory in 2011, followed by the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution craft in 2013. The $592 million heliophysics division would receive a $13.4 million boost to help launch the Solar Dynamics Observatory  in 2012, followed by the Magnetic Multiscale mission in 2014. And even though the $1.2 billion astrophysics program would decline by $85 million, to $1.1 billion, the $75 million in stimulus money it received will help it continue supporting the Kepler mission, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the launch of several instruments, including the James Webb Space Telescope in 2014.

The 2010 budget assumes completion of the nine remaining shuttle flights, including a mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. Scolese says that NASA hopes to retire the shuttle by September 2010, but that the schedule is open to revision if needed to accommodate the slated missions.