With its future on the line, the Cassini mission may yet survive if the US Congress passes their proposed budget for 2014. And, for once, that's not seeming like such a big if.
It's been a long road for NASA's Cassini spacecraft. In development starting in the mid 1980s and launched towards Saturn in 1997, the mission didn't arrive at its destination until the summer of 2004. Designed for a four year mission upon reaching Saturn, the Cassini program has been extended twice - first for two years until 2010, and then for a final seven through 2017. Coming up on ten years in Saturnian orbit, Cassini has revolutionized our understanding of the planet and the enigmatic rings which surround it.
Despite its incredible successes, recent rumors have suggested that Cassini could be on the chopping block. Budget shortfalls at NASA, exacerbated by sequestration, has NASA facing a Sophie's Choice: shut down the successful Cassini or eliminate the popular Curiosity.
Cassini and Curiosity represent NASA's two active "flagship" missions (I'm ignoring Voyager here). These are the largest and most expensive (more than $2 billion each) missions undertaken by the space agency and are major commitments to studying Saturn and Mars, respectively. In addition to their upfront price tag, each costs in the neighborhood of 50-60 million dollars a year to operate, significantly more than smaller missions.
Although in theory NASA could choose to eliminate either one, it's extremely difficult to imagine shutting down the recently-launched Curiosity, especially given its tremendous public popularity. So, things were not looking great for Cassini, but the 2014 budget might offer some relief.
The current draft of the 2014 federal budget includes an additional $700 million for NASA over last year's appropriation. That's an increase of about 4%. More importantly, the NASA science office received a larger proportion of that, about 7%, and planetary science in particular is being boosted about 10%.
Whether this money will go to fund both Curiosity and Cassini or whether NASA was seriously considering eliminating either isn't yet known. But, the bottom line is that more money for NASA, and planetary science in particular, can't be a bad thing.