Belt-Tightening Could Mean Fewer Hubble and Chandra Observations

Belt-Tightening Could Mean Fewer Hubble and Chandra Observations

NASA is bracing for a period of budgetary belt-tightening as House Republicans demand deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, the category that includes NASA. The effects will be felt across the agency, but recent meetings of NASA advisory committees highlight how science programs will be impacted. Astrophysics is a case in point. While the popular Hubble Space Telescope is not in danger of being terminated, the almost $100 million a year spent on operations may have to slim down. The Chandra X-ray telescope is in the same boat.

At a meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee last week, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Mark Clampin shared his thinking on how to set priorities while emphasizing NASA still does not know how much money it will get.

NASA is requesting $1.557 billion for astrophysics, an increase of $47 million over FY2023, but those FY2024 budget requests are mostly a dream these days.

The government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that holds agencies at their FY2023 levels and the Fiscal Responsibility Act brokered by President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) would keep it there. The FRA holds total nondefense discretionary spending to FY2023 levels, though it is not specific agency-by-agency so how much NASA will get is unknown. At this point that might be the best outcome since the House Appropriations Committee reported out lower figures for most nondefense agencies (though it hasn’t reported the bill that includes NASA yet) and some House Republicans want further cuts.

Clampin said the guidance he’s working to is a FY2024 budget that’s the same as FY2023 with a one percent increase in FY2025. That would mean a cut of $47 million from what he was planning to spend in FY2024. In a series of charts, he illustrated his choices — cutting from missions in prime operations, missions in extended operations, and missions in formulation and development.

Source: Mark Clampin presentation to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, October 19, 2023.
Source: Mark Clampin presentation to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, October 19, 2023.
Source: Mark Clampin presentation to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, October 19, 2023.

The $47 million, or whatever the number turns out to be, has to come from somewhere. Clampin said his preference is to protect missions in prime operations like the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), missions in development like the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (“Roman”), technology investments for the future Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO) planned for the 2030s, and international commitments.  JWST observes in the infrared and needs about $127 million per year for operations. The Roman space telescope also will see in infrared, but has a wider field of view. HWO is being proposed as a successor to Hubble in the visible wavelengths.

Ensuring adequate funding for Roman, formerly called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), is particularly important, Clampin said. “If we delay it, it will cost a lot more and we won’t make the schedule.” NASA is eager to show it can meet its commitments on Roman since JWST was billions over budget and years late. Congress has capped development costs for Roman at $3.5 billion with launch in 2027.

The Astrophysics division also develops smaller missions like those launched on balloons or attached to the International Space Station, and Small- and Medium-class Explorer (SMEX and MIDEX) spacecraft. They’re important not only for the science they produce, but as training grounds for the next generation of space astrophysicists. Clampin agreed that he does not want to “disfranchise” the next generation and is also protecting existing Explorer programs and Research and Analysis (R&A) funding that includes grants to universities for academic research.

That leaves missions in extended operations like Hubble and Chandra as the most likely candidates for cutbacks. Neither is in danger of termination. “Frankly, there’s nowhere else to go,” Clampin said. “We’re not turning these two missions off, we’re just reducing the level of funding by what I consider a modest amount.”

Source: Mark Clampin presentation to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, October 19, 2023.

Launched in 1999, Chandra observes the universe in the x-ray part of the spectrum. Hubble sees in the visible wavelengths and a bit of ultraviolet and infrared. Hubble was launched in 1990, but thanks to five servicing missions by space shuttle astronauts who installed new instruments and hardware, it’s much younger than its 33-year-old chronological age would imply.

A 33rd birthday image from the Hubble Space Telescope of a nearby star-forming region, NGC 1333, in the Perseus molecular cloud approximately 960 light-years away. Credit:  NASA, ESA, and STScI; Image Processing: Varun Bajaj (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Jennifer Mack (STScI)

But Hubble costs about $100 million a year to operate and Chandra about $70 million. The question boils down to priorities.

A quintet of images made from different types of light — including X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The five new objects include supernova remnants, the center of the Milky Way, and two different galaxies. By combining Chandra data with those from other telescopes, astronomers can learn new information about these objects. Colors have been assigned to the different types of light because most are invisible to the human eye. Source: Center for Astrophysics|Harvard & Smithsonian.

Clampin invited committee members to weigh in on whether they agree with his priorities, but urged them to think about the “big picture” and where they want to see astrophysics in 5-10 years.

Astrophysics is not the only science discipline facing difficult choices. Lori Glaze, Director of the Planetary Science Division, was facing them even before the current budget downturn. A cost overrun on the Psyche mission last year meant delaying a completely unrelated mission, VERITAS, for three years. Psyche finally launched earlier this month. The Mars Sample Return mission, still in formulation, is turning out to be much more expensive than expected as are other missions.

In June, she spelled out how she plans to set priorities to the Planetary Science Advisory Committee. She reiterated the challenges ahead during a Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Town Hall meeting on Thursday. Her division and Clampin’s both are part of SMD along with biological and physical sciences, earth science, and heliophysics.

Asked about progress on the Uranus Orbiter-Probe recommended by the recent Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Glaze quashed any expectations that money will be available anytime soon. The FY2024 budget request projected spending a small amount for initial steps to begin in FY2025, but “as you’ve heard we are expecting some pretty tight constraints on the budget” and “are not anticipating initiating Uranus Orbiter-Probe over the next couple of years.”

That’s pretty much the story for all of SMD. NASA’s FY2024 request for SMD is $8.2 billion as part of a total agency request of $27.2 billion. That’s the highest in history and a 7 percent increase over FY2023, but actually would only keep pace with inflation and now seems very unlikely to happen.

Associate Administrator Nicky Fox opened Thursday’s Town Hall by cautioning that “our assumption is that SMD funding likely will be highly constrained in the next couple of years and so we are continuing to carefully prioritize.” The Decadal Surveys, performed by the National Academies every 10 years — a decade — for each of the five SMD disciplines are “a critical guiding resource,” but NASA has to take input from across the government as well. As for priorities, “we always strive to protect our R&A programs,” “minimize disruptions to our international partnerships,” and support STEM engagement and early-career science.

As she has in the past, Fox urged the NASA science community to stick together and “help us build a compelling narrative” about the importance of their work.

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