European Cuts Force NASA To Rethink X-ray, Gravity Wave Astronomy Plans

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WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency’s plan to scale back two big-ticket astrophysics missions is sending NASA back to the drawing board to draft new mission concepts in support of gravity wave and X-ray research over the next decade, according to a senior NASA official.

Jon Morse, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said the agency will consult with the astrophysics community in the coming months for guidance on how to proceed in the wake of Europe’s decision to descope three large-class mission candidates vying for a 2020 launch opportunity. The two missions, known as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) and the International X-ray Observatory (IXO), relied heavily on U.S. contributions.

During an April 7 conference call with members of the NASA Advisory Council’s astrophysics subcommittee, Morse said NASA is in the process of reconstituting the committee.

“We will be asking questions of the community in going back to the [Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics] about some strategic considerations,” he said. “We need to have the discussion about what missions we think are prudent when your partner has left the mission concept.”

Neither LISA nor IXO was listed among top priorities in a 10-year survey of astrophysics science goals issued last August by the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics. In addition, budget projections for NASA science programs over the next five years suggest the agency will be hard-pressed to contribute the roughly 50 percent funding contribution that Europe had planned for LISA and IXO.

During the conference call, Morse cautioned that the path forward would be shaped largely by projected funding over the next several years, which could be even lower than anticipated as a result of NASA’s plan to rebaseline cost and schedule goals for its grossly overbudget James Webb Space Telescope.

In the meantime, Morse said the Astrophysics Division plans to continue funding for LISA and IXO at current levels, which Morse said constitute a few million dollars annually, through the fiscal year’s end Sept. 30, unless the U.S. Congress opts to reduce NASA’s science budget further than the agency anticipates.

 

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