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The Cassini mission, which took this image of Saturn, got high marks from a NASA review team.

The Cassini mission, which took this image of Saturn, got high marks from a NASA review team.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

NASA extends seven planetary missions

Everybody wins. NASA has somehow scraped enough money together to extend seven ongoing planetary science missions, based on a review of those missions by senior scientists, NASA officials revealed today at a meeting of a planetary science advisory committee.

However, the review panel was critical of the Mars rover Curiosity—the newest and the second most expensive of the seven missions—and gave it the worst grade of the bunch. The panel was disappointed that the rover team was planning to drill and analyze just eight more samples during its extended mission. “The panel essentially said, ‘Drive less and do more science,’ ” says Bill Knopf, the lead program executive for planetary mission operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Based on the review panel’s findings, NASA has asked the Curiosity team to revise its science plan.

NASA routinely reviews ongoing missions in all its divisions to assess their scientific effectiveness. Earlier this year, when the review process began, there were fears that two long-standing missions—the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Mars rover Opportunity—were at risk of being shut down. But everyone appears to have escaped the knife.

“We’re very pleased,” says LRO Project Scientist John Keller of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The 2-year mission extension will allow his team to look for changes on the moon’s surface caused by ongoing impacts from meter-sized asteroids. One instrument, the Mini-RF radar instrument, will be ended.

The highest ranked extension proposal came from Cassini, which will get 3 more years to explore the Saturn system. The mission team plans to end with a daring dive through the narrow gap between the planet’s innermost ring and the surface.

Knopf notes that the funding recommendations for the teams are still tentative, because Congress has not yet allocated funding for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins next month.

“We’re going based on what we know today,” Knopf says. “We can’t print money here.”

The full list of the missions, the year of their launch, and the review panel’s grades are listed below:

  • Cassini (1997) Excellent

  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (2009) Excellent/Very good

  • Mars Opportunity rover (2003) Excellent/Very good

  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2005) Excellent/Very good

  • Mars Express (European-led mission, 2003) Very good

  • Mars Odyssey (2001) Very good

  • Mars Curiosity rover (2011) Very good/Good

*Correction, 3 September, 5:05 p.m.: The caption previously misidentified the planet pictured; the photo above shows Saturn, not Jupiter.