Section 1.9 - Existing Programs (page 2)

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Government Programs - United States (continued)


Department of Defense (DOD)


The space projects of the US Department of Defense (DOD), are primarily managed by the United States Air Force (USAF) Space Command, with some assistance from other branches and agencies within the department. It is difficult to get a full view of DOD space-related projects, since it only makes up part of the department's total activity. The 2016 DOD Budget Overview reports $7.1 billion for space investment (page 5-3). The Space Foundation 2015 DoD Space Budget Comparison indicates a total of $9.75 billion, with detailed tables. However, much of the space-related activity is classified, and not included in these totals. Between 2012 and 2013, reported DoD space spending dropped from $27.5 to 10.8 billion, and this difference may represent the classified amount.

What is known publicly is the DOD procures and operates a number of satellites and supporting launch systems in the areas of communications, weather, nuclear detection, mapping, and navigation. It also funds a significant amount of scientific research and engineering development either directly or indirectly related to space projects. Examples of indirect efforts include high-speed air-breathing propulsion and radiation-hardened electronics.

Past Projects


Ballistic missiles were developed for military purposes rather than space launch. The requirement to deliver a bomb thousands of miles requires reaching about 80-90% of Earth orbit velocity. Therefore ballistic missiles could be adapted for space launch, usually by adding or enlarging the upper stage. A number of them were adapted this way in the late 1950's to 1960's. As the size of space satellites grew far beyond that of nuclear bombs, those launchers were repeatedly modified, to the point that some of them no longer retained any original parts except the name. Besides being used for delivery of DOD spacecraft, the same launch sites and vehicles have often been used for non-military launches. Ballistic missiles are not designed to be used more than once, and their value is relative to the target they intend to destroy. So an unfortunate side effect of using modified ballistic missiles for space launch is they were not optimized for cost. In fact, expensive throw-away hardware is the exact opposite of optimized for cost. Since the previous technology and experience was gained in that environment, later space projects have had to struggle to overcome this history.

National Science Foundation (NSF)


The National Science Foundation, or NSF, is an independent federal agency which funds research in all fields of science and engineering, except medical sciences, which have their own agency. The expected funding from the 2016 Budget Request totals $7.72 billion, a $380 million increase over 2015. The space-related part of their budget was about $460 million in 2014. Although all knowledge is a seamless whole, and much of it applies to space projects, certain fields are currently more directly related than others. The NSF offices in this category include:

Engineering Directorate (ENG)

Funds research in all the fields of engineering. Much of this can apply to space projects because most fields of engineering are used in such projects. Particular areas of interest are:

  • Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET), which funds research in chemical, mechanical, and aerospace topics.
  • Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI), which funds topics named it its title plus materials design.
  • Electrical, Communications, and Cyber Systems (ECCS), which funds electronics, communications, power sources, networking, and robotics.

Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS}

Funds the scientific fields of astronomy, chemistry, materials research, mathematics, and physics. This includes the Astronomical Sciences Division (ASD), which funds research in astronomy, including planetary science, and contributes funding or operates a number of ground-based observatories such as ALMA and LSST. Details of astronomy projects are gathered under the not-for-profit section, because typically they have multiple funding sources for the instruments and researchers.

Department of Commerce - NOAA


The US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates weather and earth observation satellites via its Satellite and Information Service. Weather satellites are located both in low polar and geostationary orbits, which supply different levels of resolution and temporal coverage. NOAA also operates the JASON sea-level measurement and DSCOVR solar wind satellites. Space related funding was about $2.1 billion in 2014.

Department of Energy (DOE)


The US Department of Energy is a cabinet level department formed in 1977 to consolidate nuclear and other energy activities of the United States. It performs research into all forms of energy and some scientific research. Almost all space projects require energy to function, so some of this research is relevant. Details of department's current programs and funding can be found in it's 2017 Budget Request. Space-related parts of their activities include:

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

This office performs research into all forms of energy supply and energy efficiency. Total funding in 2016 was $2.07 billion. Programs of particular interest include:

  • Solar Energy Technologies - Develops photovoltaic and concentrated solar power, aiming to reduce cost and increase efficiency. Given the high solar flux in the inner Solar System, many space projects use this as their main power source. Note that by 2016 ground solar energy has developed into a large worldwide industry, and much research and development now occurs outside US government funding.
  • Advanced Manufacturing - Participates in the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. Mining and manufacturing will be increasingly important in future space projects, because of the high leverage of using local resources rather than launching everything from Earth.

Nuclear Energy

This office performs research into Nuclear energy sources in particular. Total funding in 2016 was $986 million. Programs of particular interest include:

  • Small Modular Reactors - Since mass is a concern for space projects, power sources smaller than terrestrial nuclear power plants are desirable. A specific project is Kilopower.
  • Radiological Facilities Management - Provides Radioisotope Thermal Generators, which are used as power supplies for space missions. They are developed, built and tested at the Idaho National Laboratory, and several other DOE national laboratories.


This office funds scientific research and scientific tools to understand nature and advance energy security. Total funding in 2016 was $5.35 billion. Much of the work occurs through a network of National Laboratories. Programs of particular interest include:

  • Basic Energy Sciences - Includes research in materials science, engineering, chemical, geoscience, bioscience, and large scientific user facilities.
  • Fusion Energy Sciences - Supports research to develop fusion as an energy source. Although the Sun is a natural fusion reactor, solar energy is not available deep underground, or at large distances from the Sun, so artificial fusion would be useful in these locations.
  • Nuclear Physics - Supports research into all types of nuclear matter. This includes artificial and purified isotopes, which can have space applications.


This agency within the Department of Energy focuses on early-stage energy technologies which have high potential and high impact, but are too early for private investment. Total funding in 2016 is $291 million. Nearly all space projects require energy to operate, so improvements in this technology would be useful.

Commercial Programs


Commercial space projects are part of the more general "Aerospace and Defense" business sector. An Annual Overview of the entire sector is compiled by Price Waterhouse Cooper. There is considerable overlap between items used in space projects and those developed for other parts of the sector, and often the same company does both types of work. The sector as a whole had worldwide revenue of US$ 729 billion in 2014. Note this excludes undisclosed classified or private projects, and that supplier sales which end up in final products in the industry are double-counted.

The Satellite Industry Association is a US-based trade association for commercial space businesses. It has a 2016 Industry Report which indicates the global space industry in 2015 was US$ 335 billion, of which the satellite portion was US$ 203 billion. The latter represents 9.2% of global telecommunications revenue. The vast majority of satellite revenue is from services and ground equipment, such as for satellite television. Satellite hardware manufacturing and launch accounts for US$ 21.8 billion of the total. Since 208 satellites were launched in 2014, that implies the average unit cost to build and launch is US$ 105 million. For comparison, the average prices of Boeing passenger aircraft range from US$ 60-330 million.

By far the largest segment of commercial programs is for communication services, of which consumer satellite TV is the largest single component at 2014 revenue of US$ 95 billion. All other satellite services amounted to US$ 27.9 billion. This included satellite radio and broadband, commercial communications, mobile voice and data, and remote sensing. Unclassified satellite manufacturing averaged about US$ 13.75 billion per year in recent years, and launch revenue averaged about US$ 5.2 billion. Both are counted in year of delivery, while actual costs usually are distributed over several years. Ground equipment to receive from or transmit to satellites accounted for US$ 58 billion in 2014.

Future commercial programs which are in research and development but not yet significant in revenue include space tourism, orbital mining, and energy transmission.

Not-for-Profit Programs


The not-for-profit sector includes activities performed for the general benefit of humanity, most often at universities and research foundations. At present, most such space programs are related to Astronomy, and the cross-discipline field of Planetary Science. Astronomy is partly related to space systems because that is the science which studies the Universe i.e. all of space outside the Earth. It is also partly because the Earth's atmosphere, gravity, and day/night cycle interfere with certain types of instruments and observations, so they must be performed in space themselves. Individual researchers can work on their own, but the larger projects, such as new telescopes, are often a mixture of private and government funding.

Planetary science is the study of objects and systems which orbit stars. Originally it was purely a subset of astronomy and restricted to the Solar System, as no other planetary systems were known. As better instruments and close-up observations have been made, we have progressed from merely determining orbit and approximate size of planets and moons to detailed mapping and geology. So planetary science now draws heavily on the Earth Sciences to understand the history and development of these bodies. In recent decades Circumstellar Discs and Exoplanets have been detected around other stars, extending the study beyond our Solar System. More recently, the first few Rogue Planets have been discovered. These objects are too small to be stars, but not attached to any stellar system. They were either ejected from star systems or originally formed as unattached objects.

Astronomy Programs


The US National Academies compile a Decadal Survey every 10 years, laying out priorities for astronomy and astrophysics. This is a good starting point to review current and near-term programs in this field. Other science and engineering departments at universities do research related to space, and there are some smaller foundations dedicated to space research. Although much of the funding for astronomy comes from government sources, we list all of the programs here to give a better view of the field as a whole.

Astronomy programs can be roughly sorted by location and wavelength of the instruments. Locations include ground, airborne, and space. The latter two are more expensive, but are used to get above interference from the Earth's atmosphere. The Electromagnetic Spectrum ranges from long radio to very short gamma, and instruments exist to cover most or all of it. The location of the instruments, which are grouped into Observatories, is nowadays where the viewing is best for that device. This is usually different than where the funding organizations or the astronomers who make use of the data are.

There are a great number of observatories in use, since even small privately owned ones can collect useful data. Wikipedia has a lists of Astronomical Observatories and Space Observatories, the latter meaning located in space (all of them look at space). A few of the more significant ones which are relevant to future space programs are noted below. These are mainly ones that look at our own and nearby planetary systems.

Current Projects

Hubble Space Telescope - This most famous of telescopes is a 2.4 meter UV to infrared space telescope launched in 1990 and expected to operate to until either equipment failure or orbit decay terminates the mission, likely in the 2018-2024 period. In addition to other science, Hubble has been used to find and examine outer solar system objects, extrasolar planets, and protoplanetary disks. Hubble is mainly funded by NASA and ESA, and scientific operations are managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Spitzer Space Telescope - This is a 0.85 meter infrared space telescope launched in 2003. Its original helium supply, used to cool the instruments, ran out in 2009, so at present only the shortest wavelength instruments are still operating. At some point equipment failure will end the mission. Spitzer observed many solar system and extrasolar objects. It is funded by NASA.
Kepler Mission - This is a 0.95 meter visible light space telescope operating since 2009 through to 2018. It is designed to detect planets orbiting other stars which cross in front of the star (transit) and dim the star's light. Since that only happens when the orbits are edge-on to us, Kepler can only detect a fraction of the total planets in the direction it is looking. The total number of planets can be estimated from the fraction it can see. Kepler was funded and operated by NASA. After equipment failures it was operated as the K2 mission until propellant exhaustion in 2018.
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) - This is a 2.5 meter infrared airborne telescope mounted on a 747 aircraft which first saw operation in 2010. At its operating altitude of 13.7 km it is above most of the absorption caused by the Earth's atmosphere. It will study, among other things, the formation of stars and planets, the interstellar medium, and planets and small objects within our own solar system. It is funded 80% by NASA and 20% by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) - This is an array of 66 x 12 and 7 meter radio telescopes that function as an interferometer to combine their signals and act as a large single instrument up to 14 km across. It began scientific observations in 2011 when partially built, and was fully operational in March 2013. It is a general purpose radio telescope in the 0.35-10 mm wavelength bands. Among the types of observations it is making are circumstellar dust and planetary systems around other stars. ALMA is jointly funded by the US, Europe, Japan and is hosted by Chile. The ALMA Website has additional information about the project.
Gaia Observatory - This is a space satellite with instruments to measure the accurate position, motion, brightness, and spectra of about a billion stars. It was launched in late 2013. It is likely to find many planets by the wobble they cause in their parent stars. It is also expected to find and accurately measure the orbits of many small objects in our Solar System. The ESA sponsors this mission, and their Gaia Website has additional details about it.
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) - similar to Kepler but surveying the whole sky over two years.
Radar Astronomy - A few instruments are used to actively send out radar signals and measure the return. The timing of the return signal provides extremely accurate location and detailed shape information. The latter comes from timing differences from parts of the object that are at different distances, and repeating the measurements as the object rotates. Signal intensity falls as the 4th power of distance, so this technique has been limited to approximately 500 nearby objects, mostly Near Earth Asteroids.

Future Projects

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) - This is a 6.5 meter visible to mid-infrared space telescope expected to launch in 2018. It has a number of science objectives, including observing extrasolar planets, brown dwarfs, and outer Solar System objects among the more relevant ones for space programs. The instruments have a fairly narrow field of view, 2x4 minutes of arc or about 1% of the area of the Moon as seen from Earth. So it will do targeted observations rather than wide surveys of the whole sky.
Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) - This is a 2.4 meter near-infrared space telescope proposed for launch in the mid-2020's. The Science Definition Team membership comes from many universities and several independent observatories and US government centers. They released a Final Report in February 2015 describing the science goals and telescope design. Among the science goals is to perform a search for planetary systems in our Galaxy using gravitational microlensing. The program would be primarily funded by NASA, but the data would be used by astronomers worldwide.
Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - This is a 30 meter near-UV to mid-infrared (0.31 to 28 μm) ground telescope with an estimated completion after 2022. It will be made of nearly 500 1.4 meter hexagonal mirror segments on a single large mounting to be built at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. It has multiple science goals, including extra-solar planet and Kuiper Belt measurements. It is jointly funded by multiple foundations, universities, and national governments. The project is currently (2016) delayed by local protests and the construction permit process.
Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) - This is a 24.5 meter equivalent visible and near infrared ground telescope with an estimated operational date of 2021. It is made up of seven 8.4 meter mirrors on a single large mounting, because that is the largest mirror size that can currently be made in one piece. As of 2016 one of the mirrors has been completed and three others have been cast. Construction the observatory was started in Chile in late 2015. Like other large telescopes it has multiple science goals, including imaging of planets around nearby stars. It is currently funded by a group of universities.
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) - This is an 8.4 meter visible and near-infrared ground telescope with a 3200 megapixel camera which has begun construction. The LSST Construction Schedule shows a completion date of early 2022. It is a general purpose survey telescope which the LSST Science Book estimated could find 90% of Near Earth Objects larger than 140 meters in 12 years (ie 2034) if 15% of it's time is used for that purpose (section 5.11.1).
European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) - This is a 39 meter visible and near-infrared segmented ground telescope expected to be operational about 2024. This is the largest optical telescope currently planned. Its science goals include finding extrasolar planets. It is being built by the European Southern Observatory, which is funded by 16 nations and one host country (Chile), where the telescope will be located.

Planetary Science Programs


Approximately eighty Graduate Schools around the world offer degrees and perform research in planetary science. Some of them participate in government-funded planetary and space observatory missions by building instruments or supplying scientists. Others participate in or run ground-based observatories, perform independent theoretical research, or analyze data generated by the observatories and missions.