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NASA's shrinking planetary science program, in 2 tweets

A rendering of New Horizons, set to arrive at Pluto in July.
A rendering of New Horizons, set to arrive at Pluto in July.
(JHUAPL/SwRI)

Speaking at a Senate hearing on Thursday, NASA's administrator, Charles Bolden, made a bit of a mistake:

In reality, NASA has explored most planets by sending probes flying past them — not orbiting them. Though the agency has done flybys of every planet (and will get to Pluto, if you want to count it, in July), the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla points out that the only planets NASA will be orbiting in July are Earth, Mars, and Saturn.

But this is more than a subtle technical error.

NASA's planetary science program is in the midst of a pretty big contraction, mostly due to a gradual cutback in funding. The MESSENGER probe currently orbiting Mercury is set to be crashed into the planet in a few weeks, and Cassini, orbiting Saturn, will do the same in 2017.

Meanwhile, by 2017 the Juno probe due to arrive at Jupiter next year will have been destroyed by the planet's magnetic field, and the New Horizons craft will have flown by Pluto, perhaps en route to a Kuiper belt object. At that time, Lakdawalla points out, we'll be orbiting just two planets: Earth and Mars.

Read more: The dark future of American space exploration