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.