Harrison, Kennicutt to Chair Astro 2020 Decadal Survey

Harrison, Kennicutt to Chair Astro 2020 Decadal Survey

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced today the names of the co-chairs of the Astro 2020 Decadal Survey: Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology and Robert Kennicutt, Jr. of the University of Arizona and Texas A&M University.  The study is just getting underway and is expected to be completed in 2020.

Decadal Surveys are performed by the Academies every 10 years — a decade — to identity the key scientific questions and recommend missions to answer them for each of NASA’s space and earth science disciplines.  In some cases, they also cover other agencies’ science activities. The Decadal Survey on astronomy and astrophysics, for example, also make recommendations to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for its ground-based activities and to the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) High Energy Physics program.

These Surveys typically have a steering committee and several panels or subcommittees that focus on specific topics.  Harrison and Kennicutt will co-chair the steering committee.  Other committee and panel members have not been announced yet.  All of them are unpaid volunteers who take on the two-year task of reaching a consensus on priorities and missions on top of their regular jobs.  Only their travel expenses are reimbursed.  It is not unusual for as many as 200 scientists and engineers to be involved in a Decadal Survey.

Whoever chairs, or co-chairs, a Decadal Survey must manage this consensus-based undertaking assisted by staff from the Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) and Board on Physics and Astronomy (BPA).

Dr. Fiona Harrison, California Institute of Technology. Credit: Harrison’s Caltech website.

Harrison is an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Chair of its Division of Physics and Mathematics.  She also currently chairs SSB. Her research areas are experimental and observational high energy astrophysics and she is the principal investigator of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR).

Kennicutt, also an astrophysicist, is a professor at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona and in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M.  His specialty is observational extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

The very first astronomy and astrophysics Decadal Survey was conducted in 1964.  The most recent — New Worlds, New Horizons —  was completed in 2010.

Dr. Robert Kennicutt Jr, Texas A&M University (TAMU) and University of Arizona. Credit: TAMU website.

When Decadal Surveys begin, the sponsoring agencies tell the study committee how much money they expect to have over the decade in question.  Based on that, the committee recommends missions of varying sizes and complexity to answer the scientific questions.  Budgets do not always turn out as expected, however, and in recent years NASA (and others) have encountered difficulties executing Decadal Survey recommendations.

Another complicating factor is when missions end up costing much more than expected.  That is certainly true for NASA’s astrophysics program where the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — the top priority for a large space-based mission in the 2000 Decadal Survey — has suffered years of cost overruns and schedule delays.  Because more money was needed for JWST, initiating the top priority large space-based mission in the 2010 Decadal Survey, the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), was delayed.

As this next Decadal Survey gets underway, JWST will not be launched until March 2021, more than two decades after it was recommended, and the Trump Administration has proposed cancelling WFIRST.

Congress is still debating that proposal as part of NASA’s FY2019 budget request. NASA is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2018 funding level.  The CR expires at the end of next week.  In action so far, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees rejected the Trump proposal to cancel WFIRST.  To keep the project on schedule for launch in 2025, it needs about $350 million in FY2019.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $352 million, while the House Appropriations Committee provided half that.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a member of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA, wrote a letter to the chair and ranking member of the subcommittee last week, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). He urged their continued support for JWST and WFIRST.  Van Hollen represents NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages both programs.

In the FY2019 spending bill, he wants Congress to raise the $8 billion budget cap it imposed on JWST in 2011 (and every year since) when it encountered dramatic cost growth.  Although it appeared on track to stay under that cap, the situation began deteriorating last year when the telescope entered the integration and testing phase.  NASA revealed this June that the cost has grown another 10 percent, so the cap must be raised for the program to proceed. Although it will not need more money in FY2019, NASA will require $490 million more than budgeted for FY2020 and FY2021.  Van Hollen said that raising the cap now will “settle a major variable” as the Astro 2020 Decadal Survey gets underway.

Indeed, it is against this backdrop that the Decadal Survey committee must do its work.  Its task is to recommend bold new steps for NASA to take in astrophysics in the decade of the 2020s while NASA must also find resources to fund the unmet priorities of the previous Decadal Surveys — paying for the new JWST overrun, keeping WFIRST on schedule, and ensuring the balance in NASA’s astrophysics portfolio among small, medium and large missions and research and analysis activities is not disrupted.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, proposed a delay for the Decadal Survey until JWST was launched, but got push back from the astrophysics community in part because the Decadal Survey does not affect only NASA, but NSF and DOE as well.  Zurbuchen relented, but insisted that it was good to have had the debate.

Decadal Survey committees obtain input from the science community at large by inviting the submission of white papers.  The Academies also announced today that the deadline for submitting science white papers for Astro 2020 has been extended and now will be open from January 7-February 19, 2019.

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