Welcome back to the American Astronomical Society Policy Blog. After a long hiatus I hope you will renew your interest in policy as it relates to astronomy — especially if your research is funded by a NASA, NSF, or other government grant.
To celebrate the American holiday Halloween, I decided to share with you a topic that may be scary to many astronomers and astrophysicists.
Jon Morse, the NASA Astrophysics Division Director, presented at a recent Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee meeting the future of astrophysics at NASA.
In 2010 there are enough NASA astrophysics instruments to cover the entire electromagnetic spectrum. However, these instruments will not operate forever. In fact, WMAP has already been decommissioned.
The NASA Astrophysics Division lists only 7 instruments currently in development, including JWST. Is this common or is there usually more or less? To answer these questions I used data from the NASA Astrophysics Division and from the post by Cosmic Variance. I plotted a histogram of launch dates from 1990 to 2020. (Making histograms in Excel 2008 for Mac is nearly impossible. Please comment if you know a better way, preferably free open source.)
There is a decline in the number of instrument launches from 1990 to 2020. The data include the launch dates of the 7 instruments in development, which does appear to be a small number compared to previous years. In the Era of Big Science, this trend may continue because it seems to take more time and more money to create new science.
In FY2010 the budget for the NASA Astrophysics Program was $1,103.9 million. JWST takes up 40% of the total budget at $440.3 million. Many new projects cannot get off the ground (literally) until the launch of JWST. The current launch date for JWST is set for 2014. The JWST Test Assessment Team Report was charged with reviewing integrating and testing. The report states that the time for testing can be shortened by 2 to 6 months without incurring unnecessary risk.
Senator Mikulski called for an independent report assessing the costs of JWST. The Independent Comprehensive Review Panel (ICRP), a.k.a. Casani Report, was scheduled to complete their report on October 1. The report from the NASA Astrophysics Subcommittee says, “The ICRP will provide an assessment of the JWST launch date, schedule, funding profile, and reserves.”
The future looks sparse. In 2016 there will be only 9 instruments in operation.
Notice the only instrument predicted to be in formulation in 2016 is the Astro2010 Decadal Survey New Worlds, New Horizons top ranked large-scale space-based recommendation WFIRST. GEMS and Astro-H may also be in formulation according to the timeline. Its formulation and development is delayed because JWST is taking up 40% of the budget leaving no spending power for any other large-scale projects. WFIRST has three science goals: exoplanets, survey, and dark energy. Discovering the nature of dark energy is also the goal of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Euclid mission. The NASA Science Advisory Committee recommended to keep the option open in partnering with the ESA Euclid mission, but continue with the recommendations of the Decadal Survey.
With two big projects in the pipeline, how do we restore the observational gaps in the electromagnetic spectrum? What about the explorer missions which were ranked second in the Decadal Survey? Unfortunately, there has not yet been much talk about these kind of missions.
On October 19 there was a Call for Letters of Application for Membership on the Science Definition Team (SDT) for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). The charter for the WFIRST SDT will be posted to http://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/ in early November 2010.
For the timeline of astrophysics missions and how the “Golden Age” of astrophysics is ending check out the post by Cosmic Variance.No tags for this post.