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NASA Confirms New Frontiers Program Delay

NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has confirmed that the call for proposals for the next New Frontiers planetary science mission will be delayed until no earlier than 2026.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Sat Sep 02 2023Written by Zac Aubert

NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has confirmed that the call for proposals for the next New Frontiers planetary science mission, initially scheduled for release in the fall of this year, will be delayed until no earlier than 2026. The delay is attributed to budget uncertainties within the Planetary Science Division (PSD) of NASA.

"Budget uncertainty in the Planetary Science Division (PSD) makes release of the AO in 2023 and subsequent selection of a new mission difficult. NASA SMD's new target is no earlier than 2026 for the release of the final AO." - NASA

The final Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for the 4th New Frontiers mission was scheduled to be releaed in November of this year, with a draft version of the AO issued in January 2023 to gather feedback from the scientific community. However, NASA has revised its plans during the summer, citing concerns related to a debt-ceiling agreement that maintained funding for non-defense discretionary agencies like NASA at a flat level for fiscal year 2024, followed by a 1% increase in 2025. This agreement led NASA to anticipate not receiving the full $27.2 billion it had requested for 2024, thereby creating funding challenges for the agency's programs.

"If the planetary science funding levels that are anticipated as a result of this tight budget environment are actually realized over the next two or so years, it is unlikely we'll be able to solicit New Frontiers perhaps not before 2026." - Lori Glaze, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division

The draft AO initially sought proposals for missions covering six themes recommended by the planetary science decadal survey in 2011. These themes included a comet surface sample return, a mission to Jupiter's volcanic moon Io, a lunar geophysical network, a sample return mission to the moon's South Pole-Aitken Basin, a mission to assess the potential habitability of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, and an investigation of Saturn's atmosphere.

With this extended delay in the 4th New Frontiers mission, a revision of the list based on guidance from the latest planetary science decadal survey published in 2022 is expected. While the 2022 survey did not propose changes to the list of potential missions for the fifth New Frontiers competition, it did provide recommendations for the sixth and seventh missions, expected to be competed over the next decade.

NASA has indicated it will request the National Academies to review which potential mission concepts from both lists should be included in the delayed AO. The agency also highlighted the opportunity to update the mission themes' science objectives based on the recently released planetary decadal survey.

This delay has significant implications for scientists who had already begun planning proposed missions, including establishing partnerships and initiating work on spacecraft design and scientific objectives.

NASA intended to select multiple proposals by the end of 2024 for Phase A studies, which were set to continue until early 2026. The selection of the next New Frontiers mission was anticipated to take place in late 2026, with a launch window between 2031 and 2034.

The draft AO had specified a budget of $900 million for mission development, along with an additional $300 million for operations. However, last year's decadal survey recommended an increase in the cost cap for both development and operations to $1.65 billion, in addition to an allowance of $30 million per year for "quiet cruise" operations for missions with extended transit times. None of these cost caps included expenses associated with the launch.

To date, NASA has chosen four New Frontiers missions, with three already launched, including the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission orbiting Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx mission, which is set to return samples from the asteroid Bennu this September.

The fourth mission, Dragonfly, aimed at exploring Saturn's moon Titan, is currently in development with a scheduled launch date in 2027.