March 4, 2024

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NASA postpones Dragonfly review and launch date

NASA postpones Dragonfly review and launch date

WASHINGTON — Citing budget uncertainty, NASA is delaying the launch of the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan by a year and postponing a key milestone in its development.

In a presentation at the November 28 meeting of NASA’s Exoplanet Assessment Group (OPAG), Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said the agency’s leadership decided to postpone the formal confirmation of the mission earlier this month, a milestone in which the agency determines the cost. Official mission schedule.

She said the delay in confirmation by NASA’s Program Management Council (APMC) was based on uncertainty about how much money would be available for the mission and other parts of NASA’s planetary science portfolio given the broader budget pressures on the agency. “Due to these incredibly significant uncertainties in FY24 and FY25 funding and budgets, the decision was made at APMC to postpone the formal confirmation,” she said.

Instead, the APMC will meet again after the agency’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal is released in early 2024. “We expect to bring Dragonfly back to the APMC in the spring” to decide on confirmation, she said. However, in the meantime, NASA will allow the mission to proceed with some final mission design and manufacturing elements that typically do not begin until after a confirmation review.

NASA requested $327.7 million for Dragonfly in fiscal year 2024, 18% less than what the mission received in 2023, but said at the time it would keep the mission on schedule to meet its June 2027 launch readiness deadline. They warned in May The funding needed is less than they estimated would be needed and they are “evaluating cost and schedule options” for the mission.

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A “replanning” of the mission by the project team over the summer, using a revised budget file, resulted in a new launch readiness date of July 2028, one year later than previously planned, Glaze said at the OPAG meeting.

The Dragonfly delays come as NASA faces an expected funding shortfall in its planetary science division overall as well as in many other parts of the agency, resulting from a June budget deal that capped overall non-defense discretionary spending at 2023 levels for 2023 and 2024. . An increase of only 1% in 2025.

NASA requested $3.38 billion for planetary science in 2024, but the House bill would provide $3.1 billion and the Senate bill $2.68 billion. The report accompanying the Senate bill would direct NASA to spend $327.7 million on Dragonfly in 2024, while the House report did not talk about the mission.

Despite the budget issues, there is still “incredible support” for Dragonfly within the agency, Glaze said. The mission, selected by NASA in 2019 as part of the New Frontiers line of mid-range planetary missions, will send a drone to Titan, flying through the moon’s dense atmosphere to visit several regions that may provide clues if the planet could one day support it. life.

When NASA selected Dragonfly, it planned to launch in 2026. The agency in 2020 announced a launch delay by one year, to 2027, citing external pressures on the agency’s budget, including those related to the pandemic. Glaze, at the OPAG meeting, did not identify any internal problems with the mission that caused the recent delay.

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She indicated at the meeting that her options are limited to deal with low budgets. The department’s top priority is to complete and launch the Europa Clipper project in October 2024, she said, noting that any delay in that pioneering mission would have its own budgetary ramifications. Other priorities include missions that have passed their confirmation reviews, such as the NEO Surveyor spacecraft to search for near-Earth asteroids and the VIPER lunar rover, as well as research funding.

Along with the changes to Dragonfly, NASA delayed calls for future New Frontiers and Discovery missions and slowed the start of a new major mission, the Uranus Orbiter and Probe. It did not rule out changes to other missions in the early stages of development depending on the severity of budget cuts. “Anything in the portfolio that is not confirmed at the moment is at risk,” she later said at an OPAG meeting. “We’re waiting to see what happens.”