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Wither Voyager?

The spelling is deliberate. Mark Krikorian is upset that we're going to shut it down, and thinks that it's penny wise and pound foolish, given the low costs of continuing to listen to it. But I wonder how low the cost really is, and how high the value.

I haven't paid much attention to it, because I'm not that big on space science, but I'll bet that the costs cited to keep it going don't include time on the DSN. Does anyone know how DSN time is allocated, and what the opportunity costs would be for Goldstone, Canberra et al to have to point at Voyager to listen to the tiny trickle of data that's coming in at this point? I'd think that if they want to stop listening, that would be the reason, but I don't know if there is any procedure or pricing policy set up for actually buying time on the big dishes, even if a non-profit foundation were set up to take it over. Anyone out there knowledgeable about this?

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 04, 2005 03:26 PM
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With Full Cost Accounting, the DSN cost should be included in that figure.

Posted by Phillip Vistica at April 4, 2005 04:36 PM

According to Paul Gilster in his 2004 book "Centauri Dreams" the DSN access costs $12000 per minute.

Posted by Mike Borgelt at April 4, 2005 05:00 PM

This also feeds into the idea that, once a mission is purely science-driven (read: all the cool stuff's been done), why should NASA stay involved? If scientists want to know where the edge of the solar system is, why can't NSF step in?

Ooooh, there's another elephant in the living room, as Rand put it.

Posted by Tom at April 4, 2005 06:25 PM

"This also feeds into the idea that, once a mission is purely science-driven (read: all the cool stuff's been done), why should NASA stay involved? If scientists want to know where the edge of the solar system is, why can't NSF step in?"

Okay, assume that you transfer the cost to the NSF. You do realize that the NSF is a US government agency, just like NASA, right? So you haven't "saved" any money, just transferred the responsibility. And if you transfer the responsibility, do you honestly think that NASA gets to _keep_ that money?

There ain't no "elephant" here. NASA does space science because that is part of what NASA does. If you decide to continue doing it, then why put it someplace other than NASA?

And how do you claim that Voyager was not a science mission all along?

Posted by Phillip Vistica at April 4, 2005 06:41 PM

Unless the cost to continue collecting data is wildly higher than the $4 million a year figure I've heard, I definitely want to see it continue. The science is important, but also, I'm proud of them and would hate to see them abandoned for minimal savings. These starships have earned their place in history and they still have something to contribute.

Posted by VR at April 4, 2005 07:36 PM

Sure, transferring it to the NSF doesn't save any money. But the NSF is institutionally focused on doing science, whereas NASA is more interested in flashy new projects. This could mean they make decisions based on scientific worth instead of NASA's criteria.

Posted by Matt Maurano at April 4, 2005 08:13 PM

Cost is no problem, let it go for now. Capt Kirk will bring it home in 150 yeras or so and we can download the accumulated information then!

Posted by Steve at April 4, 2005 08:25 PM

Perhaps Matt Maurano has hit on something.

We can agree that NASA has problems. Perhaps it's that, as an organization, they are tasked to missions that are not compatible; break it down to 'Space Missions' and 'Science' for simplicity sake. Dividing budgets and competence across two boundries like that might drive an organization schizzy.

Would we gain something by breaking NASA in twain along those lines? The scientists at NASA_Science would get an organization that does what they love, the engineers at NASA_Mission would get to fly hardware.

Yes, simplistic argument. Does it have merit?

Posted by Brian Dunbar at April 4, 2005 09:21 PM

I bet space and planetary scientists don't want their programs transfered to NSF. At NSF, they would have to compete on a more level playing field with many other fields. Is space science really so much more valuable than, say, materials science, that it deserves a much larger share of the budget?

Posted by Paul Dietz at April 5, 2005 04:56 AM

Good one, Paul. I've been thinking along those lines with the recently-hyped move of NASA away from its traditional congressional committees. The argument went that when NASA had to argue against VA benefits and housing, NASA would lose. Now, NASA will have to argue against pursuits more closely aligned to it, and if it continues to use its science arguments, the cost/benefit ratio may not be there compared to other programs.

Posted by Tom Hill at April 5, 2005 05:28 AM

I would suggest that the perceived value of voyager et al, might best be appreciated from the perspective of folks in the future, perhaps 50-100 years from now. I would imagine that shutting down these missions to save a lousy few million a year would be perceived as incredibly short-sighted, whereas by maintaining them, our generation would be seen as forward-looking and visionary.
Imagine people of 80 years from now deciding that they, for reasons completely beyond our imagining now, needed data about space conditions far from our sun. Without the maintainance of the voyager missions, they would have had prepare and launch other missions, then wait decades until they got answers. From this point of view, the information coming back from these missions becomes priceless.

Posted by John Bossard at April 5, 2005 07:01 AM

or peaple who may want to leave to solar system
may need to know where interstllier space begins

Posted by Christopher coulter at April 5, 2005 02:55 PM


To get a straight answer about DSN cost, I went straight to the source. Here is a link that is available to the public. It has a spreadsheet where prospective customers can enter their projected needs and get a first level cost estimate. I played around with it and the answer is that it does not appear to cost anywhere near $12K/minute. But the answer also is that it depends heavily on what assets you need to use and how often you want to communicate with the vehicle. The 70m dish costs 4X as much as the 26m.

But there are many other costs besides the DSN resources, so $4 million is not a hard number to reach.

I won't comment on the decision whether or not to cancel Voyager. I just want to make sure that the facts are out there.

Posted by Mazoo at April 5, 2005 06:22 PM

> I would suggest that the perceived value of voyager et al, might best be appreciated from the perspective of folks in the future, perhaps 50-100 years from now.

I'm convinced - shut it down now.

There aren't many arguments less compelling than "what will the French think?", but "what will future people think" is one of them. Should I make decisions based on what my ancestors might have thought about or does the consideration only run one way?

Posted by Andy Freeman at April 5, 2005 09:03 PM

Tom: I think considering space/planetary science in the context of science as a whole is a very worthwhile thing to do.

For example, consider the search for life on Mars. If you want to find new life, there's still enormous opportunities to do that on Earth. Using PCR on DNA found in soils, water, etc., biologists have recently discovered that 99% of all microorganisms are still unidentified -- including several entirely new phylla! If, as seems likely, putative Mars life and Earth life would have a common origin, then why devote so much of the search to Mars when there's so much oppotunity here?

The punchline, I think, is that space/planetary science are worthy of special effort only if they are being done in support of goals that are not mainly scientific in nature. For example, studying the space plasma environment to enable operations of satellites in near-Earth space, or recon of bodies with the ultimate goal of their exploitation.

Posted by Paul Dietz at April 6, 2005 05:49 AM

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