WASHINGTON — NASA will invite scientists and engineers across the agency later this month to propose potential uses for a pair of 2.4-meter spy telescopes donated to the space agency this summer by the National Reconnaissance Office, a NASA official said Nov. 6.

Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate here, briefed members of the NASA Advisory Council’s astrophysics subcommittee about the plan during a Nov. 6 teleconference. The astrophysics division has been evaluating whether to use one of the telescopes for a long-planned dark energy mission, but it is possible that both telescopes may wind up serving other parts of NASA, Hertz said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will ultimately decide who gets the hardware, but he will base his decision on a report written by a team led by Marc Allen, the Science Mission Directorate’s assistant associate administrator for strategy, policy and international matters.

In “mid-November,” Allen’s team will solicit mission concepts from across the agency, Hertz said. The group will invite the authors of its favorite proposals to a workshop in Huntsville, Ala., planned for late January or early February.

“Out of the workshop, some presentations will be selected and possibly combined to identify options for quick design studies — architecture studies, not even mission design studies — and those will be undertaken to support the final report to the administrator on possible uses of one or both of these telescope assets,” Hertz said.

Hertz did not say when a final report would be delivered to Bolden, but he did stress that it would contain input not only from NASA’s $5-billion-a-year Science Mission Directorate but from the Human Exploration and Operations, and Space Technology divisions as well.

The Allen team’s study is going on in parallel with the astrophysics division’s review to determine whether one of the surplus spy telescopes could help astronomers save money on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a proposed dark energy observatory that the science community has deemed a top priority.

Engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., are expected to report on a WFIRST design reference mission that incorporates a donated telescope in April, Hertz said. WFIRST was conceived as a $1.6 billion mission. Back in July, Michael Moore, then acting NASA astrophysics director, said one of the gift telescopes could reduce that estimate by $250 million.

In a 10-year science roadmap the National Academy of Sciences published in 2010, astronomers said getting started on WFIRST this decade was second in priority only to finishing and launching the massive James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). JWST is now under construction at Goddard and is supposed to launch in October 2018. Development of the $8.8 billion mission is expected to preclude NASA from funding missions like WFIRST until at least 2017, Hertz said.

NASA personnel are also studying WFIRST alternatives that do not incorporate the donated spy telescopes, Hertz said. NASA has already completed design reference missions for two such spacecraft. The first envisions a redesigned but still large-scale WFIRST telescope; the second recasts the observatory as a smaller probe with a $1 billion price ceiling and a three-year mission life — two years less than astronomers envisioned when they called for such a mission.

More details about these WFIRST alternatives, and other proposed astrophysics missions, are to be released to the astrophysics community in a draft white paper ahead of the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting Jan. 6-10 in Long Beach, Calif., Hertz said in July.

Funding JWST

Also during the conference call, Hertz said JWST will get all the funding it needs in 2013, despite the passage of a six-month temporary spending measure, or continuing resolution, that went into effect Oct. 1 and froze government spending at 2012 levels through March.

“Because the overall [science mission directorate] budget is flat from 2012 to 2013 there’s enough money to do what we were planning for,” Hertz said. “We just have to allocate it correctly.”

The funds to shore up JWST would have to come from elsewhere in NASA’s budget, and shifting the money would require the agency to submit an operating plan to its congressional oversight committees for approval. Hertz said he did not know whether NASA had drawn up such a plan yet, or where the offsets for JWST would come from.

“The process allows for this,” Hertz said. “JWST is a priority; one infers they [NASA management] will do what it takes.”



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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...