Monday, July 07, 2014

The Next NASA Discovery Mission

NASA has issued a draft Announcement of Opportunity for the next Discovery planetary science mission (PDF).  There are a number of changes for this AO compared to previous ones for the Discovery program.  The mission cost cap is now $450M.  The following NASA-developed technologies can be included in mission proposals, with the technologies (and in some cases consulting) included as government furnished equipment.
  • NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT)
  • Heatshield for Extreme Entry Environment Technology (HEEET)
  • Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC)
  • Light Weight Radio-isotope Heater Units (LWRHUS)
  • Advanced Solar Arrays (ASA)
  • Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC)
  • Green Propellant
  • Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT)
There is also an incentive for using some of the technologies.  For example, DSOC includes a $30M incentive.  The proposal may also include demonstrations of technologies that are not on this list as long as they have the potential to apply to future NASA science missions, and as long as their failure would not cause failure of the science mission.

There is also a 1% incentive for a student collaboration, which is a student-based addition to the mission such as an instrument or support software that requires the mission to take place, and whose failure would not compromise the main mission.

There are numerous other changes in this AO compared to past ones for the Discovery program.  However, it is possible that one factor that will distinguish this competition from past ones isn't in the AO, but instead is from a changed landscape in the potential sources of Discovery mission proposals.  A number of private groups have  been trying to implement what seem to be roughly Discovery-class missions:
These organizations intend to run their missions privately.  However, they may find that it is too difficult to raise the funds required to implement the missions, and eventually send in proposals for NASA funding for this or future Discovery rounds, perhaps collaborating with more traditional industry, NASA, and academic partners.  These organizations may have an advantage to the extent that their private efforts are able to raise funding to do serious initial work on the respective proposals.  Another possibility is that these organizations continue to attempt to implement their missions privately, but some other organization takes advantage of their initial work and submits a Discovery proposal using some of their ideas.  For example, it might make sense for a vendor like Ball Aerospace to build a team to develop an asteroid survey Discovery proposal, perhaps using some ideas, work, or at least inspiration from the B612 Sentinel effort.

In addition, private organizations have been working on robotic spacecraft for asteroids (Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, etc) and the lunar surface (Astrobotic, Moon Express, etc).  In some cases their systems appear to be smaller than Discovery class, intended more for industrial use than science, and at the stage of technology demonstration, but perhaps they could piggy-back on a larger Discovery mission proposal, or a "swarm" of them could combine to make a Discovery class science mission.

A group at NASA has also studied a concept for a "Red Dragon" Mars lander.  One might imagine that, if the mission aligns well with SpaceX's long-term goals, SpaceX might be willing to put some resources into such a proposal, giving that proposal a leg up in a Discovery competition similar to the private efforts of B612, Mars One, and Boldly Go for their missions.

Do I expect this round of Discovery to be won by one of these private teams?  Not really.  If I had to guess, I would guess that the winner will be a traditional industry/academia/NASA Discovery team.  However, I do expect this round to feature more serious non-traditional private participation in the competition than in the past.  Participation in this round would enable the teams to refined their mission proposals while allowing them more time to accumulate their own funding and to develop their own technologies, making them stronger competitors in future Discovery rounds.

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