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Scientists give NASA their wish list for the next 30 years

WASHINGTON—At NASA's request, scientists have given the space agency a detailed wish list of missions they hope to see conducted over the next 30 years.

The proposals range from something as down to earth as a satellite to measure all the rain that falls on our world to a far-out mission looking back to the dawn of time.

That venture would send a spaceship named the Big Bang Observer to study the explosion that astronomers believe gave birth to the universe 13.7 billion years ago. The goal is to "determine what powered the big bang and how the universe began and evolved," said Paul Hertz, a senior scientist in NASA's Office of Space Science.

Another deep-space mission would use a "solar sail," propelled only by light rays from the sun, to explore interstellar space beyond our solar system.

Another project would station "sentinels" between the Earth and the sun to watch for solar storms that affect our atmosphere and threaten astronauts' safety. The aim is to "forecast all-clear periods for space explorers near Earth," said Tim Killeen, the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

These proposals and dozens more are in a set of six "road maps" prepared by scientific and technical advisory committees drawn from within NASA, the commercial space industry and universities. (There were supposed to be 13 maps, but NASA's new administrator, Michael Griffin, reduced them to save time.)

The Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences is analyzing the road maps. NASA will put them together in a Strategic Science Plan this summer, in time for next year's federal budget request.

"This is the science we'd like to do," Hertz told the board last week. He acknowledged, however, that money problems are likely to delay or cancel some of the scientists' favorite projects.

NASA is pondering how many of the ideas can squeeze into the space agency's tight budget. Future scientific missions are supposed to cost no more than about $6 billion annually—about what NASA is spending on science this year.

Exact costs for most of these projects, under the $6 billion overall ceiling, aren't yet available. But they fall into three categories: missions costing $300 million to $500 million, missions costing $500 million to $800 million and those costing up to $2.8 billion.

For example, a spaceship to land on Titan—the largest moon of Saturn, with an atmosphere that may resemble early Earth's—would cost $1.4 billion to $2.8 billion.

Competing for scarce dollars is President Bush's expensive vision for human exploration of the moon and Mars. That exploration will cost about $3 billion in fiscal year 2007. Some researchers fear that the manned missions will gobble up money they'd rather see spent on science. Others think the two endeavors—exploration and science—can complement and support each other.

Killeen, a physicist who leads one of the road map teams, called the proposals "science enabling exploration."

Each of the scientific road maps is divided into three 10-year phases ending in 2015, 2025 and 2035. Each phase is more ambitious and difficult than the one before. For instance, the Big Bang Observer wouldn't be built until after 2025. Another late-starter would be a Black Hole Imager, designed to observe what happens at the rim of a black hole, an object so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape it.

The third road-map phase would climax in 2035, around the time that the first humans would land on Mars under Bush's plan.

In support of their proposals, the road map planners said a lot of scientific work was necessary before a manned expedition to Mars would be safe or even possible. For example, satellites must monitor lethal radiation from the sun and deep space, and methods must be found to extract water and other materials on the Martian surface.

Attempting to land on Mars without a lot of advance research would be "a very risky business," Killeen said.

Even if a future president or Congress scrapped the Moon-Mars expeditions, scientists said, their road maps would still be useful for purely scientific space missions.

"We don't see that that would change our plans (or) lead us to a drastically different outcome," Killeen told the Space Studies Board.

Despite the obstacles and expense, committee members hope the road maps will light the way to discoveries even more astonishing than scientists have made in the last 30 years.

"Science is now poised to answer some of humanity's deepest questions, such as how the universe came into being; how it formed the galaxies, stars and planets that set the stage for life; and whether there is life on other worlds," a NASA statement on the road map process said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050620 NASA PROJECTS

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