Budget woes hit Mars exploration plans

US President Barack Obama’s proposed 2013 budget would effectively slash $226 million from NASA’s Mars exploration program.

A draft version of the budget confirms “support for robotic exploration of Mars [will be] reduced following the launch in 2012 of [Curiosity] – the multi-billion dollars Mars Science Laboratory.”

However, the budget text emphasized that NASA remained interested in working with international partners to plan future exploration of the red planet.

“[Nevertheless], some important, but currently unaffordable missions are deferred, such as large scale missions to study the expansion of the universe and to return samples from Mars.”

Although plans to expand the exploration of Mars may have been temporarily curtailed, the draft budget does allocate a significant amount of funds for various space-related projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (capped at $8 billion), along with three billion dollars for new spacecraft, which includes $1.86 billion for the continued development of a Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and $1.2 billion for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle “with a key initial goal of visiting an asteroid next decade.”

In other related space news, NASA is apparently forging ahead with plans to asses the value of a “human-tended waypoint,” or deep-space outpost, near the far side of the moon. According to a recent memo obtain by Space.com, a team is currently being formed to develop a cohesive plan for exploring a location in space known as the Earth-moon libration point 2 (EML-2).

Libration points, also referred to as Lagrangian points, are locations in space where the combined gravitational pull of two large masses (approximately) balance each other out, allowing spacecraft to essentially “park” there.

As such, EML-2 could theoretically serve as a convenient jumping off point for the exploration of multiple destinations, including near-lunar space, asteroids, the moon and Mars. 

An EML-2 waypoint would also help facilitate tele-robotic research on the far side of the moon, while serving as a platform for solar and Earth scientific observation, radio astronomy and other science in the quiet zone behind the moon.