NASA: double down on Science

I heard it from a man who,
heard it from a man who,
heard it from another…

ok, it was an e-mail, but it confirmed the strange tale I had been told.

NASA is about to do a Mad Max on its Science Missions.
Five missions enter, one mission leaves. Literally.

NASA has many houses. Within one is the Science Mission Directorate, which does space science, including Earth observations, Solar/Magnetosphere, Solar System Planets and “Astrophysics” (formerly known as the “Universe” division).
Space Science missions are housed within the divisions, and not always where you’d think.

Within Astrophysics there is a program, “Beyond Einstein”. It was a 2003 Presidential Initiative, specified as a request in the State of the Union address…
Beyond Einstein originally envisioned three lead-off flagship missions, two intermediate followons, and then several long term major followup projects.
The flagship mission concepts are:

Constellation-X – a multispacecraft spectroscopic x-ray mission. It is a relatively low risk x-ray light bucket, for doing high resolution low energy x-ray spectroscopy. Primary targets accreting black holes. Con-X has undergone some derescoping recently. No international partners.

LISA – the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. A joint mission with the European Space Agency. 3 spacecraft modules flying in open formation, an equilateral triangle 5 million km on a side. It will detect low frequency (~ 1 to 100 milliHerz) gravitational radiation, from compact stellar binaries and supermassive black holes.

Joint Dark Energy Mission – a wide field optical imager to look for and measure type Ia supernovae in the distant universe. Mission goal is to get a precise measurement of the acceleration parameter of the universe, and if possible its derivative, getting a measure of the equation of state of dark energy and its evolution with cosmic time. JDEM is formally a competed mission concept with several different proposals in the pipe, but SNAP is the original dominant concept; a large mission co-sponsored by the Department of Energy. I heard rumours SNAP has solicited an international partner, and also rumours that this was a tactical error…

Inflation Probe – is conceived as a followup to WMAP and Planck. It would do more precise measurements of the microwave background, including high precision polarization measurements.
It was conceived as a second generation Beyond Einstein mission and is pre-phase A, no detailed mission concepts are competed yet.

Black Hole Finder – another second generation mission, conceived as a high resolution x-ray imaging mission. It would do wide field high angular resolution imaging in hard x-rays to spatially locate black holes, including dust and gas shrouded black holes.
The technology for this is cleary doable, it relies on natural advances of know technology, mostly.

This summer, word was that two of the three big missions would fly, first in ~ 2016, the next in ~ 2021, with the third to be terminated, and any followons indefinitely postponed. Final review and selection looked to be ~ 2010 plus or minus.

Now, very suddenly, all has changed, again.
An NRC committee is being convened, recommendation for membership by September 20th, first meeting in november, followon meetings in spring and summer and a decision one year from now.
Decision is on which of these five missions has priority, with science, technology, cost, risk and “other” all factors in the decision.
The committee can recommend priority for the next mission, but reading between the lines, this is an all or nothing deal. One mission will be selected, the rest die or go into suspended animation for a decade or more, or until the NASA budget changes drastically. NASA, as I understand it, will take the recommendation under consideration but is not bound by it. They could go with second choice, or completely ignore the recommendations, although that might not be prudent. But, stranger things have happened…

Rumour is that the DoE pushed for this, hard, and personally. They want an up-or-down on JDEM/SNAP right now. Oh, and they want it to be SNAP that is selected of course.

The weird thing is that this is competing apples and oranges: the missions are different in size and at different development stages. LISA has passed critical design review, has a Pathfinder mission about to fly for final technology qualifications, and there is a formal letter of agreement with ESA about launch and decision mechanisms. ESA will explode if NASA unilaterally cancels or further postpones LISA (caveat: I have some interest in LISA, but am not a LISA science team member).
Con-X is a mature, conservative concept, but I hear rumours the tech teams are fading away in frustration; in particular some x-ray tech people seem to have been re-assigned to Department of Homeland Security projects (looking for faint Pu-239 emission line signatures in shielded cargo and such like) and are quietly bailing as fast as they can.
JDEM has not formally competed for which mission design would be selected. SNAP has been on the boards for a number of years as a DoE concept and has done a lot of technology development and science concept studies, but they have not space qualified or gone through CDR as far as I know. I think they did go through a Technology Assessment Review relatively recently.

The Inflation Probe has undergone some concept studies (like EPIC, not to be confused with the other EPIC (planet observer concept)), but there is nothing there yet. The technology is not developed, it is barely conceptualised, and there has been no design review. As far as I know.

Same with the Black Hole Finder, concept studies and power points, no real technology development or mission studies. Funding just hasn’t been there yet to do anything serious. To fold IP and BHF in with the more mature missions is senseless, I can’t see how they can compete for the launch slot, at best they could be prioritized for a followon slot in the 2020+ timeframe if a formal decision is made to kill two of the flagship missions.

So, my reading is that this is a power play by the Department of Energy crowd, they want to force the issue and eliminate the competition. Throwing in all five missions just confuses things, it is a Thunderdome match between SNAP, LISA and Con-X.
Con-X has a huge science and NASA staff constituency, x-ray astronomy is a big thriving field which is really blossoming. Killing Con-X would destroy the scientific careers of a large fraction of that community, especially the younger researchers.
LISA is the opening of a new field, it has passed design review, it has a major cost sharing international partner (of course that could be a negative in the current climate), but it has a small constituency with fewer old time NASA scientists involved.
SNAP is popular with the physics crowd, has DoE support (although how much real $$$ DoE can ante up is not clear) and has friends within NASA. A significant science constituency could be attracted to a high end wide field optical imager looking at extragalactic stuff. Good secondary science. But formally it is JDEM, not SNAP being competed, and there are (cheaper) alternatives to SNAP in concept study.

Inflation Probe and Black Hole Finder have no chance to be ready for a first launch slot, there is no detailed mission design or tech review. At best they could be recommended as a priority for the second launch slot, if there is one. [Well, ok the EXIST crowd could probably make a case that they could be ready for an early launch, from what I've heard. Could be the dark horse that pips everyone at the line].

The next year will be interesting – potentially the careers of a couple of thousand scientists are at stake, if two major missions are permanently downselected then a lot of people are out. Both within NASA and at major universities. By my counting half-dozen+ major universities staked serious internal resources on high energy astrophysics and space based cosmology being a going concern for the next decade or two, and that could be coming to an abrupt end.
Now, everyone tries to hedge their bets, diversify, ride out the hard times. But, at some point some of the Deans and Provosts will blink, and major departments will stop playing. They will pull out of sectors of space technology development and instrumentation and disband the labs. Then game is over and the US would have to rebuild, or buy from Europe, the expertise needed for entire sub-fields of science. That takes 2-3 decades, historically.

Prioritization is important, so is allocation of sparse resources. What worries me is the all-or-nothing mentality; the rush to make a decision under pressure, changing the timeline again with no warning; and the apparent lack of comprehension that if you want to do the science any time in the future you need the core competency to be protected. MBA mentality, the thinking that you can just buy in and ramp up the expertise when the time comes.
Doesn’t work that way. If nothing else there just aren’t that many PhDs and engineers who know this stuff, and if you let them rust or change, they very rarely come back. Apparently they go get a life.

Oh, the predicted outcome: easy
First Rule of Committes – the Committe Conclusion is a Function of Who is on the Committee

Look who ends up on the NRC review committee, and you will know with high confidence what its conclusion will be.


  1. #1 Scott H.
    September 16, 2006

    I’ve been talking with members of the NAC, and it’s pretty clear there is a strong sense of what BE1 will be. A lot of the discussion is thus about what is likely to be BE2. (Full disclosure: I *am* a member of the LISA science team, so I have some serious interest in the science one of these missions.) The NAC is hewing to the notion that a BE2 will exist, though this isn’t clear at all.

  2. #2 Scott H.
    September 16, 2006

    Incidentally, the real tragedy of this to me isn’t so much the shoot out among the biggies, but the way that the Einstein probes (Inflation Probe and BH finder) got mixed into this mess. Inflation Probe was seriously way off in the future, and arguably needed Planck + balloons and ground-based obs before they could design a seriously interesting mission (e.g., they’re going to need a lot more experience dealing with foregrounds!). But keeping the concept alive seemed like a no-brainer. BH Finder … as you say, this could get underway almost right away, and would obviously be a great mission. Tossing these into the same shark pond as JDEM/LISA/Con-X is a travesty.

  3. #3 Babe in the Universe
    September 16, 2006

    If JDEM does manage to be funded, it will be most embarassing to find that Dark Energy doesn’t exist. All JDEM can do is refine a DE “equation of state,” not solve the problem. The inflation probe is based upon similiarly shaky science. Finding polarization would not distinguish between the myriad inflation models. Are you concluding that Con-X and LISA have the best chance?

  4. #4 Lubos Motl
    September 16, 2006

    Hi Steinn, that’s bad! Are you saying that there is, among other things, a 80% probability that LISA will die now? The pictures are beautiful, but frankly, I haven’t heard about the other projects by names yet… Constellation X could be fun.

    Is JDEM really gonna improve something? Does someone expect it to be more accurate than WMAP (and the present supernovae measurements) or incompatible? Why is Inflation Probe being built when Planck is still a music of the future? The same question about Black Hole Finder relatively to Constellation X?

    Best, Lubos

  5. #5 Babe in the Universe
    September 17, 2006

    (Disclaimer: The author is very close to supernova research)
    I can answer LM’s question. As you know, discovery of an “accelerating universe” has led to a divergence of dark energy models. JDEM would located thousands more supernovae to further refine the redshift/magnitude diagram. This would (they hope) find a DE equation of state and distinguish between the myriad accelerating models. SNAP and DESTINY Compared

    You know what I think of “dark energy.” Whom shall I nominate for the committee?

  6. #6 Babe in the Universe
    September 17, 2006

    Sorry, that link should be SNAP and DESTINY Compared

  7. #7 Lubos Motl
    September 17, 2006

    Dear Babe,

    I would frankly be more than happy if you debunked the positive cosmological constant. Can I help you in any way to get beyond the M=T equation in Planck units that can’t quite do the job? :-)

    Oh, I didn’t know that Steinn was close to supernovae, knowing him more from the planets and their climate. :-) OK, that’s a good reason to construct NASA’s program as five future experiments to observe the supernovae. :-)


  8. #8 Steinn Sigurdsson
    September 18, 2006

    The early decision on the Beyond Einstein launch slot (and there may quite possible be only one), seems to have been pushed by SNAP backers, in the expectation that JDEM would be selected and then SNAP selected for the JDEM mission.
    SNAP is a wide field “hubble class” optical imager, which would find a lot of type Ia supernovae, and with ground based followup, under the assumption that they are well calibrated standard candles, would measure the luminosity distance vs redshift relation, which under assumptions of a homogenous general relativistic universe (FRW + dark energy) would give a measurement effectively of the first and second derivatives of the proper cosmological distance. Combined with other measurements of the baryonic and dark matter content, and the total density, this gives you W and W’ – or equivalently a measure of the equation of state of the dark energy.
    Anyone can of course assume a different theory of physics and see if it fits.
    JDEM measurements are orthogonal, more or less, to parameters measured by Planck, they work well together, give different constaint contours in parameter space.
    SNAP, I’ve heard has some technology issues, but they have Department of Energy backing. There are question to what extent SNAP science is better done from the ground, for now, eventually you want to go to space fot his; and whether SNAP is really the best cost/risk option for JDEM – there are competing proposals.

    The Inflation Probe is the furthest from detailed mission concept, but it follows a principal NASA maxim – you always plan for the next mission. Since Planck is being built and approaching launch, the time to think about a Planck successor is now.
    IP is conceived, as I understand it, as primarily a polarization mission.

    Con-X and Black Hole Finder are quite different, as x-ray missions go: Con-X is aimed at time resolved high resolution x-ray spectroscopy of bright known sources. In the few keV energy range. It does physics of accretion flows, eg inner regions of known luminous accreting supermassive black holes.
    Black Hole Finder is a hard x-ray wide field imager, optimised for a sky survey, its primary task is a census of accreting black holes down to some brightness limit. It would find both stellar mass black holes “locally” and supermassive black holes out to cosmological distances.

    LISA is different. As I noted I am not on the LISA science team, but I have done some LISA science and if there were real funding would be doing more. It is an interesting mission concept, and has the potential for fundamental physics breakthroughs as well as astrophysics.

    My personal estimate, from what I’ve heard, is that this is a showdown between SNAP and LISA – the former has DoE backing, the latter is joint with ESA. Con-X seems to be in serious trouble – but it has an established science constituency and low risk science, and is the most “NASA Center” oriented mission.

    I still think which mission is picked will depend on who is on the review committe, but I see the race as being between SNAP and LISA, with Con-X an outside contender.
    Second big question is whether there is still a second launch slot open, and whether it would go to another flagship mission or one of the smaller scope missions.

    It will be an interesting year.