Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Discovery Program Series: Introduction and Interview with Michael New (Lead Program Scientist)

As stated on the NASA website, NASA's Discovery Program gives scientists the opportunity to dig deep into their imaginations and find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of the solar system. When it began in 1992, this program represented a breakthrough in the way NASA explores space. For the first time, scientists and engineers were called on to assemble teams and design exciting, focused planetary science investigations that would deepen the knowledge about our solar system.

As a complement to NASA's larger “flagship” planetary science explorations, the Discovery Program goal is to achieve outstanding results by launching many smaller missions using fewer resources and shorter development times. The main objective is to enhance our understanding of the solar system by exploring the planets, their moons, and small bodies such as comets and asteroids. The program also seeks to improve performance through the use of new technology and broaden university and industry participation in NASA missions.

All completed Discovery missions have achieved ground-breaking science, each taking a unique approach to space exploration, doing what's never been done before, and driving new technology innovations that may also improve life on Earth.


Previously selected Discovery missions have included Mars Pathfinder, MESSENGER, and Dawn.  In the figure above, missions in red are no longer active.  Missions in white are currently operating, and those in yellow are future missions/instruments currently being built. The latest of the selected Discovery Missions, Mars Insight, is expected to launch in March of 2016.

From the 27 proposals submitted in November of 2014 to the most recent Announcement of Opportunity for Discovery, NASA has selected 5 missions for further refinement in the next year as a first step in choosing one or two missions for flight opportunities as early as 2020.  Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016 for continued development leading up to launch. Any selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or the cost of post-launch operations.

The planetary missions selected to pursue concept design studies are:
Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI, PI: Lori Glaze, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Managed by GSFC)
DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.

The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS, PI: Suzanne Smrekar, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Managed by JPL)
VERITAS would produce global, high-resolution topography and imaging of Venus’ surface and produce the first maps of deformation and global surface composition.

Psyche (PI: Linda Elkins-Tanton, Arizona State University, Managed by JPL)
Psyche would explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche. This asteroid is likely the survivor of a violent hit-and-run with another object that stripped off the outer, rocky layers of a protoplanet.

Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam, PI: Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Managed by JPL)
NEOCAM would discover ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date.

Lucy (PI: Harold Levison, Southwest Research Institute, Managed by GSFC)
Lucy would perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, objects thought to hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system.

The announcement of these selections for further refinement were exciting for several reasons, not the least of which was that 4/5 teams are being lead by female PIs.  Each of the selected missions and their team leads will be profiled in this series of blog posts.

To start this series, I had the chance to interview the NASA Discovery Lead Program Scientist, Dr. Michael New.  Dr. New earned a BS in chemistry from Yale University and a PhD in chemical physics at Columbia University in 1994. He joined the civil servant staff of the Exobiology Branch at NASA Ames Research Center in 1998. Dr. New moved on to NASA HQ in 2002.

What has been your experience with the Discovery Program?
I started leading the Discovery Program in 2006. Susan Niebur (may she rest in peace) left NASA days before the release of the 2006 AO and I volunteered to run the competition while the Division thought about a permanent solution. Paul Hertz, then in the front office, mentored me.  It was, to use NASA-speak, like drinking from a firehose!  I've been the Lead Scientist ever since.

What is the process like?  What was each team required to do until this point, and what are their next steps?
The process of selecting a Discovery mission is a very long one — roughly two years from submission of Step-1 proposals (multi-hundred page technical proposals, not like the short white papers required for ROSES solicitations) until final selection for flight.  Because of the complexity of the initial proposal, we try to give the community as much advance notice about a new AO as possible. In the case of the 2014 AO, NASA issued a number of "community announcements" well before the release of the Draft AO to give the community as much information about the parameters of the AO (such as cost cap, availability of NASA-developed technologies, and launch vehicle types) as soon as possible. NASA followed this up with a full draft of the AO.  We received 145 comments on the Draft AO all of which were addressed either by modifying the AO, adding a question and answer to the "Discovery 2014 AO Q & A Document", or by doing both.  By the time the final AO was released, the community had been working on their proposals for months, if not a year.  The next step for the five selected proposals is to refine their mission concepts and report on these refinements in a Concept Study Report that will be submitted to NASA at the end of the summer of 2016.

What do you believe are the basic requirements to a successful mission, from concept to close out?
The elements of a successful Discovery mission can be summarized by "focus and cooperation". Since Discovery missions are cost-capped, proposed science investigations need to be highly focused on compelling, high-priority science questions. The instrumentation selected must also be lean — if an instrument is not absolutely required to achieve the goals of the science investigation, then it shouldn't be part of the proposed payload. Since the teams are also fairly lean, cooperation within the team is essential, both within the engineering and science sub-teams and between them. This has to start from the top — the PI and Project Manager (PM) have to have a close, mutually respectful relationship with clear lines of authority (who is responsible for what).  The institutions participating in the mission should also provide the project with the needed support, what ever that needs to be.