In an effort to inject greater budgetary realism into the U.S.
astronomy community’s next 10-year plan for space-based science, NASA intends to fund roughly a dozen mission concept studies in the year ahead.
The last such 10-year plan – the National Research Council’s 2001 “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium”
survey – dramatically underestimated the cost of many of the missions it recommended. As a result, big projects such as the Space Interferometry Mission and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) are stuck
in limbo as the decade comes to a close.
A. Morse, a University of Colorado astronomer who took over as director of NASA’s astrophysics division in April after a stint at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said spending some money now on mission concept studies would help the next decadal survey, which gets under way in about a year, deliver “an exciting but executable” 10-year plan.
“If you under-cost a large mission, it really affects the rest of a portfolio,” Morse said in an Oct. 15 interview. “We under-costed [the James Webb Space Telescope] by roughly a factor of somewhat over two. We under-costed [the Space Interferometry Mission]
by a very large fraction, and LISA’s mission cost by a factor of six.”
A recently released NASA
solicitation gives the astronomy community until Nov. 20 to submit concepts for
new medium- and large-class space missions the space agency
should consider tackling in the next decade.
Morse said NASA expects to select several large missions and eight to
10 medium-class missions in early 2008 for yearlong studies worth up to $1 million each. The results of these studies will be factored into the astrophysics decadal survey.
take into account
reports from a pair of
National Research Council panels: the Beyond Einstein Program Assessment Committee and the Exo-Planet Task Force. Morse said both panels are providing excellent guidance that should prove valuable to both NASA and the decadal survey, but cautioned that “the costs of implementing the full suite of recommendations would outstrip the projected budgetary resources by a significant amount. So the community is going to have some tough choices to make when it derives its decadal survey priorities.”
For example, Morse said, according to the Beyond Einstein committee,
the cheapest versions of all five missions
would cost $11 billion
. “That’s approximately the entire astrophysics budget for a decade if we did nothing else – no Hubble, no James Webb – but built those missions. Clearly the community needs to take a look at whether that’s the correct balance.”
While NASA has taken criticism
for not making a bigger dent in the last decadal survey’s to-do list, Morse said the next two years will see NASA and its international partners bring some tremendous new capabilities on line.
“In astrophysics, there’s been some angst about the future but I couldn’t be more excited,” Morse said. “Just in the next two years we will be launching [the Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope], Hubble Servicing Mission 4, Kepler, Herschel Planck along with [the European Space Agency], and then the [Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] mission. We cover the entire electromagnetic spectrum, all the way from high-energy photons to far-infrared and microwave wavelengths.”
Funded at $1.3 billion annually, NASA’s astrophysics program currently commands roughly a fifth of the agency’s
science budget. That
spending is projected to decline to around $1.1 billion annually in the years ahead as development of the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope – the division’s biggest mission
– winds down in advance of a scheduled August 2013 launch.
Spending on the Hubble Space Telescope comes a close second to James Webb, at least in the near term. NASA spent over $300 million this year operating Hubble and preparing
for a final servicing mission slated for August, and expects to spend about the same on the observatory in 2008. Once the servicing mission is done and Hubble’s new instruments have been thoroughly checked out, Hubble spending is expected to decline by roughly half
With a couple of exceptions, NASA’s focus for the remainder of the decade is on finishing what it has already started. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a telescope-equipped Boeing 747 aircraft
that is years behind schedule, began flight tests in October
and is expected to make initial science observations in 2009 but not achieve full capability until several years later. Likewise, NASA is working to finish the over-budget Kepler planet-hunting telescope and get it launched in 2009. Kepler will be followed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the astrophysics
division’s last planned launch of the decade.
Prior to NASA’s recent decision to reinstate the Small Explorer-class Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array mission, Morse said, the astrophysics division was looking at a four-year gap between the launch of the WISE and James Webb. Now that gap will be broken up by a 2011 launch of the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array
and the possible 2012 launch of one or more Small Explorer-class missions the agency has yet to select.
NASA expects to issue a Small Explorers solicitation this fall
and set a Jan. 15 deadline for submitting
proposals. Come April, Morse said, NASA expects to select six to eight mission proposals for additional study and then
up to three to proceed toward flight. Small Explorer missions are cost-capped at $105 million, not including launch.