Astrophysicists Told To Expect Very Modest Funding for New Missions

Astrophysicists Told To Expect Very Modest Funding for New Missions

Jon Morse, Director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, told the National Research Council’s Astro2010 Decadal Survey Committee last week that it should plan on having only about $2.3 billion available to spend on new astrophysics missions at NASA. Astro2010 is tasked with recommending priorities for new NASA astrophysics missions, associated research and analysis, and related activities for the next decade within a budget envelope identified by NASA.

He also hinted that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may need additional funds before it is finished. JWST’s current budget is based on a 70% confidence level in the program’s cost estimate. Dr. Morse reminded the committee that “70% is not 100%” and indicated that JWST may come in closer to the 80% confidence level. He did not specify that cost, but it obviously is higher than the 70% confidence level. According to NASA’s FY2010 budget request documentation, JWST’s current life cycle cost estimate is just under $5 billion, with launch scheduled for June 2014.

Dr. Morse emphasized that under one scenario (shown as the blue portion of the chart on page 9 of his presentation) about $4 billion would be available for new NASA astrophysics activities. However, a different scenario emerges (shown as the blue portion of the chart on p. 10 of his presentation) after reducing the $4 billion by additional potential JWST requirements and other potential costs. The latter include funding that will be needed to deorbit the Hubble Space Telescope eventually, and extended missions for current spacecraft. Under the second scenario, available funding for new missions is only $2.3 billion for the decade.

In response to a question about the status of the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM), Dr. Morse turned the discussion to whether a new class of moderately-sized astrophysics spacecraft, “Probes,” should be created that would parallel the New Frontiers program in NASA’s Planetary Science Division. Like New Frontiers, specific missions would be chosen competitively at three year intervals. Dr. Morse seemed to suggest that if the Decadal Survey recommended creating such a class of astrophysics spacecraft, JDEM could compete for one of those opportunities. JDEM is a NASA-DOE spacecraft mission to investigate dark energy in the universe. It was previously rated by the National Research Council as the top priority of NASA’s Beyond Einstein program, but now is being reconsidered as part of the broader astrophysics program.

Dr. Morse spoke at a public session of the Astro2010 Survey Committee’s meeting last week along with representatives of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). The three agencies are sponsoring the study. All three answered questions previously submitted to them by the committee. NSF and DOE also provided budget guidance for what is expected to be available in their agencies. NSF funds ground-based astronomy. DOE’s High Energy Physics office participates in some space missions related to high energy physics, including Fermi (formerly GLAST), JDEM, and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) that is scheduled to be launched to the International Space Station next year.

Astro2010 is one of three Decadal Surveys ongoing at the National Research Council in different space science disciplines. See our National Research Council page for more information.

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