NASA Subcommittee Talks Missions, Funding

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Publication date: 
8 July 2008

NASA’s Astrophysics Subcommittee, chaired by Craig Hogan, Director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at the Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, met July 2-3 at NASA headquarters to discuss and advise NASA on the status of various missions. The subcommittee, which falls under the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), received briefings on budget issues, the upcoming decadal survey, the Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope (GLAST), the Hubble Space Telescope, and exoplanet research.

Jon Morse, Director of the Astrophysics Division, kicked the meeting off with a presentation of Fiscal Year 2009 budget highlights. Morse explained that NASA’s priorities include the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM), the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), and the Constellation-X Observatory (Con-X). NASA will also focus on a new medium class exoplanet initiative as they continue technical and cost studies of the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM ‘Lite’). The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy’s (SOFIA) development will be accelerated in hopes of beginning early limited science in 2009. Morse added that recent successes with superpressure balloons may revitalize that program.

Morse narrowed in on the SMD budget and showed a graph of funding levels over the years that ended in a flat line. As related by Morse, there is a consensus in the scientific community that SMD does not have the resources to pursue new missions. Given SMD’s current level of funding, Morse said that starting all the missions would result in none of them getting done. Morse went so far as to say that LISA’s long term funding is insufficient to support its minimum mission.

Morse ended his presentation by discussing plans to change the budget structure for named astrophysics division fellowships. The proposed change would reorganize fellowships under science based themes; Cosmic Origins, Physics of the Cosmos, and Exoplanet Exploration. Senior fellowships for midcareer researchers were also discussed.

John Huchra, President of the American Astronomical Society (an AIP member society), followed with a brief on the status of the upcoming decadal survey. With funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, the Astro2010 Decadal Survey- convened by the National Research Council- will set priorities for federal investment. Huchra reported that the survey is in need of a chairman, who it is hoped will be chosen by summer’s end. Qualifications include administrative experience, demonstrated consensus building ability, and a breadth of scientific expertise and interest. Nominations can be made here.

The subcommittee was updated on GLAST’s mission progress by Julie McEnery, Deputy Project Scientist for GLAST. After an overview of GLAST’s mission to perform a survey of high energy sources and dark matter, McEnery showed a graph depicting the timeline of GLAST’s operation. GLAST instruments were turned on June 24-25 with no major problems to report. GLAST will continue instrument studies through a 60-day checkout period. McEnery also said that the first pictures from GLAST may be available by the beginning of August.

David Leckrone, Senior Project Specialist for Hubble, and Preston Burch, Hubble Program Manager, told the subcommittee that Hubble Servicing Mission 4 was on schedule for an October 8 launch. This final servicing mission to Hubble is described as “one of the less risky missions,” but will see the replacement of all six stabilizing gyros, and the installation of various scientific instruments. Leckrone said that an average of 14 scholarly papers are published from Hubble data each week. If the servicing mission is completed successfully, Hubble will be more capable than ever before, and fully instrumented for the first time since 1993.

The subcommittee ended the first day by making recommendations for the annual performance report mandated by the 1993 Government Performance Results Act (GPRA). GPRA requires agencies to enumerate their mission goals, and create plans achieve those goals. An agency’s performance towards reaching those goals is assessed by an external expert panel. This report is made available to the public, Congress, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The subcommittee rates four areas of the strategic plan’s results as either green (good), yellow, or red (poor). The four areas are—origin and destiny of the universe, phenomena near black holes, and the nature of gravity; progress in understanding how the first stars and galaxies formed, and how they changed over time into the objects recognized in the present universe; how individual stars form and how those processes ultimately affect the formation of planetary systems; create a census of extrasolar planets and measuring their properties. The subcommittee voted unanimously to rate each of the four areas green.

The second day was dominated by a discussion on the Exoplanet Task Force’s (ExoPTF) progress. ExoPTF was established to advise NSF and NASA on the prospects of studying exoplanets, planetary systems, and Earth-like planets. ExoPTF has already completed their 15-year strategy report, which is available here. The ExoPTF report calls for a flexible two pronged approach of using spaced-based and ground-based observation techniques. The subcommittee agreed to report favorably on the findings.

The subcommittee ended their session by reporting their deliberations to Morse. The date of the subcommittee’s next meeting has not been decided, but members were leaning towards a mid-September meeting in Florida. Additional information on the subcommittee can be found here.

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