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NASA Delays Dragonfly Mission To Titan

The Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division has announced a one-year delay in the launch of the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed Nov 29 2023Written by Zac Aubert

The Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division has announced a one-year delay in the launch of the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. The postponement is attributed to budget uncertainties, and a key milestone in the mission's development has been pushed back.

In a recent presentation at a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), Lori Glaze revealed that the formal confirmation of the mission, a milestone where NASA sets an official cost and schedule, was delayed earlier this month by the Agency Program Management Council (APMC).

The decision to postpone confirmation was made due to significant uncertainties surrounding the funding available for the mission and other components of NASA’s planetary science portfolio, amid broader budget pressures on the agency.

"Because of these incredibly large uncertainties in FY ’24 and FY ’25 funding and budgets, the decision was made at that APMC to postpone the official confirmation” - Lori Glaze, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director

The APMC is set to reconvene after the release of NASA’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal in early 2024. The agency plans to revisit Dragonfly's confirmation decision in the spring of that year. However, NASA will allow certain elements of the mission's final design and fabrication to proceed during this period, a departure from the usual practice that delays such activities until after the confirmation review.

NASA had initially requested $327.7 million for the Dragonfly mission in fiscal year 2024. This amount represented an 18% reduction compared to the mission's 2023 funding but was projected to keep the mission on track for a launch readiness date of June 2027. However, concerns were raised in May when project officials warned that the requested funding might be insufficient, leading to an evaluation of cost and schedule options.

Glaze disclosed that a "replan" of the mission over the summer, incorporating a revised budget profile, resulted in a new launch readiness date of July 2028, a one-year delay from the previous plan.

The Dragonfly mission delay coincides with broader funding challenges facing NASA's planetary science division. The agency requested $3.38 billion for planetary science in 2024, but proposed House and Senate bills offer $3.1 billion and $2.68 billion, respectively. The Senate bill suggests allocating $327.7 million for Dragonfly in 2024, while the House report remains silent on the mission.

Despite these budgetary hurdles, Dragonfly continues to be supported within the agency. Dragonfly, selected by NASA in 2019 as part of its New Frontiers line of medium-class planetary missions, aims to send a drone to Titan to explore regions that may provide insights into the moon's potential to have once supported life.

NASA had initially planned to launch Dragonfly in 2026 but announced a one-year delay in 2020, citing external pressures on the agency's budget, including those linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NASA has limited options available to address reduced budgets; the completion of the Europa Clipper mission and launching it in October 2024 remains a top priority for the division. Any delay to Europa Clipper would have its own budget repercussions. Other priorities include confirmed missions such as the NEO Surveyor spacecraft and the VIPER lunar rover, as well as ongoing research funding.

In addition to the Dragonfly mission, NASA has postponed calls for future New Frontiers and Discovery missions and slowed the start of the Uranus Orbiter and Probe flagship mission.

"Anything in the portfolio that is not confirmed right now is at risk. We're waiting to see what happens." - Lori Glaze, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director