WASHINGTON — NASA has confirmed that it is delaying issuing the call for proposals for the New Frontiers planetary science mission, which was scheduled for this fall, to no later than 2026 due to budget issues.
in Community announcement Posted Aug. 24, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) said that the announcement of opportunity (AO) for the fifth New Frontiers mission will be delayed and that the potential list of missions eligible for selection could be changed.
“Budget uncertainty in the Planetary Science Division (PSD) makes AO launch in 2023 and subsequent selection of a new mission challenging,” the agency said in the announcement. “The new NASA SMD target is no earlier than 2026 for a final AO release.”
Until this summer, NASA was working on the final AO version for the New Frontiers mission in November. This included releasing a draft version of the AO in January to solicit feedback on its contents from the scientific community.
However, by the summer, NASA had slowed those plans, citing uncertainty associated with a debt-ceiling agreement that keeps funding for non-defense discretionary agencies, such as NASA, flat in fiscal 2024 with a 1% increase in 2025. The agency’s leadership said in June. By June, the agreement meant that NASA was unlikely to get the full $27.2 billion it requested for 2024, creating “challenges” for the agency’s programs.
At a NASA SMD open meeting on July 27, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, warned of the potential for an extended delay in the release of New Frontiers AO. “If the planetary science funding levels expected as a result of this tight budget environment are indeed achieved within the next two years or so, it is unlikely that we will be able to touch new horizons perhaps not before 2026,” she said. This delay became official with the release of the community announcement.
Project AO sought mission proposals on six topics, as recommended by the Decadal Planetary Science Survey in 2011: a comet surface sample return, a mission to Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, a lunar geophysical network, and a sample return mission to the lunar south pole . Aitken Basin, a mission to characterize the potential habitability of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus and a probe of Saturn’s atmosphere.
However, the long delay may prompt NASA to change that list, based on guidance from the most recent Decadal Planetary Science Survey published in 2022. That report did not recommend changes to the list of potential missions for New Frontiers V, but did offer recommendations for goals for the two missions. The sixth and seventh, which the contract expected to be contested over the next decade.
The 6th New Frontiers Decadal Survey roster retained the Comet Surface Sample Return, Lunar Geophysical Network and Saturn Probe Concepts, and added an orbital mission, a lander mission to a small Centaur-type object in the outer solar system, a Ceres sample return mission, a multiple flyby mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and an orbiter to Saturn’s moon Titan, and the Venus In-Situ Explorer.
In the community announcement, NASA said it will ask the National Academies to review potential mission concepts from the two lists that should be included in the delayed AO. “This also provides an opportunity to update the science objectives for mission subjects based on the recently released Decadal Planetary Survey,” the announcement added.
The delay comes after many scientists have already begun planning for the proposed missions, including forging partnerships and beginning work on spacecraft design and science goals. The AO draft projected a proposal deadline of April 2024, five months after the final AO was issued. NASA planned to select several proposals at the end of 2024 for Phase A studies that will run through early 2026. NASA expects to select one of these finalists as the next New Frontiers mission in late 2026, which will be launched between 2031 and 2034.
The AO draft specified a cost of $900 million for mission development, plus $300 million for operations. However, last year’s decadal survey recommended increasing the maximum development and operations cost to $1.65 billion, plus an allowance of $30 million annually for “quiet cruise” operations for missions with long transit times. None of the cost limits included launch.
NASA has selected four New Frontiers missions so far. Three of them have been launched: the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Jupiter-orbiting Juno mission, and the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will return samples from the asteroid Bennu in September. A fourth mission, the Dragonfly mission to Titan, is in development for a launch in 2027.