SEATTLE — Kepler and SOFIA, two NASA astronomy missions put in jeopardy by technical and budget issues have, survived their near-death experiences but still must deal with constrained funding, project officials told astronomers.

At a “town hall” session of the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society here Jan. 5, representatives of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) project said the airborne observatory is in good shape after Congress largely restored funding for it in the 2015 omnibus spending bill passed in December.

SOFIA is a 747SP aircraft equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope. Credit: NASA
SOFIA is a 747SP aircraft equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope. Credit: NASA

SOFIA was in danger of being mothballed when NASA’s 2015 budget request sought only $12.3 million for the project, down from $87.4 million in 2014. NASA said in the request that if it could not find partners to take over the agency’s share of operations, it would place SOFIA in storage in 2015.

The omnibus bill instead provided SOFIA with $70 million, allowing the project to continue, although with 20 percent less funding than 2014. “There will be some impacts due to the cut for this year,” SOFIA Project Scientist Pamela Marcum said at the town hall meeting.

Marcum said the project was still determining how to absorb the cut, but is working on the assumption that the 2015 funding is a “transient dip” that will be restored in later years. “Therefore, the decisions we are making to address the budget challenge for this year should not have permanent ripple effects for the duration of the program,” she said.

At a separate town hall meeting here Jan. 7 about NASA’s overall astrophysics program, Paul Hertz, director of the agency’s astrophysics division, said he was confident SOFIA would be able to perform good science despite the reduced budget for 2015. “We’ll be able to continue a compelling SOFIA science program through fiscal year 2015 with this funding,” he said.

Just Back from Europe

SOFIA, a Boeing 747SP aircraft equipped with a 2.5-meter telescope, returned to the United States in December after a six-month overhaul in Germany overseen by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is NASA’s partner on SOFIA. The project decided in June to go ahead with the maintenance of the observatory after it appeared likely Congress would restore funding for it.

Both the aircraft and telescope came out of the overhaul in excellent shape, Marcum said. “The plane has come back in ‘like new’ condition,” she said. “We have a very healthy observatory.” SOFIA science observations will resume later in January, and a new round of competitively selected observations, called Cycle 3, will start in March.

K2’s Downhill Run

The Kepler/K2 team at NASA Ames at their laptops for a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in October 2014. Credit: Kepler Mission via Facebook
The Kepler/K2 team at NASA Ames at their laptops for a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in October 2014. Credit: Kepler Mission via Facebook

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has also found new life after suffering technical problems. The spacecraft, launched in 2009 to look for exoplanets in one region of the sky, had to abandon that original mission in 2013 when the second of four reaction wheels on the spacecraft failed, preventing it from pointing accurately at the selected region.

In 2014, a NASA senior review of astrophysics missions endorsed an alternative mission concept called K2, where the spacecraft looks at different parts of the sky for “campaigns” of about 80 days at a time, using solar pressure along with the remaining two reaction wheels and thrusters to orient the spacecraft.

“The spacecraft is doing really fine,” project scientist Steve Howell said at a Kepler town hall meeting here Jan. 5. The spacecraft is currently in the third of nine planned campaigns, and in December, NASA announced the discovery of the first exoplanet in data collected during the K2 mission.

The spacecraft is using less propellant than previously projected, which means that it should be possible to extend the mission after the last campaign is completed in June 2016. “When we first proposed the K2 mission, we thought we had enough fuel to last for two years,” Howell said. “We believe we can go about another year.” That, he said, would allow for four additional observing campaigns.

Kepler’s budget was cut by 10 percent from the recommended amount in the senior review, NASA officials said, although that report did not give a specific dollar value. However, agency officials said that cut should not have a major effect on the mission.

“We are currently in the process of developing the budget profile and finalizing that with the project,” Douglas Hudgins, program scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, said at a Jan. 3 meeting here of the Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group. “Everyone has sharpened their pencils and done a good job of mapping out a plan that will conduct the K2 mission pretty much as proposed.”

Women@NASA interview with Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist

SOFIA Project Scientist Pamela Marcum’s journey to becoming a NASA scientist began in a rural coal-mining community in eastern Kentucky, as she explains in this Women@NASA video. 

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...