NASA Senior Review 2012

Every other year NASA conducts a Senior Review of its astrophysics missions that have completed their nominal mission and are requesting an extension of their mission.

The 2012 review panel just reported.

The panel had an interesting task – to rank in priority the operating missions:

Kepler and Fermi are being reviewed for the first time, as is Hubble , as effectively it goes into a “new mission ops” mode after refurbishments.

Hubble and Chandra are large missions with large operations costs; Kepler, Fermi and Spitzer are medium size Discovery class missions; Swift is an Explorer class mission; Suzaku is Japanese, and Planck and XMM are ESA missions.

The 2010 Senior Review was brutal, in the context of significant budget cuts, and 5 of 11 missions reviewed were terminated.

This panel declined to rank the missions – rather each class is rated in multiple separate categories and there is no recommendation for overall science priorities.

All missions are highly rated, and the committee effectively ask for full funding for all missions, with additional funding beyond that requested for a couple of missions.

This is to be contrasted with a reality where the requested budget amount is insufficient to meet the requests, and additional cuts are not unlikely, either through the normal budget battle between the Executive and Congress, or through recissions being triggered by the budget deal.

There are some strange recommendations, like Suzaku being ranked below Planck and Fermi in its class, but then being recommended for additional augmented funds, beyond what they requested?!

Reading between the lines, the panel seems to want NASA to cut mission operations for Hubble and Chandra to achieve any savings, though there is strange language about Kepler extended mission possibly not being funded, but to have data analysis funding protected.
There is harsh language about the obscurity of the staffing of Hubble ops at Goddard and Space Telescope.

But the panel stops shy of actually making recommendations, or prioritization to NASA, the report is a Rorschach test for HQ administrators, they can see in it what they want to see.

The problem is that something almost certainly has to give, and the decision is now being kicked upstairs with obscure guidance.

This could end badly.


PS: Nature News blog take on SR12
– they have an optimistic read and an official NASA statement, that the money will be found and all is good – well except Fermi has to go into ramp down and HST needs to explain itself (We Are Goddard ought to do it…)

All missions continue operations after the 2012 Senior Review.
HST continues at their currently funded levels.
Chandra’s Guest Observer budget is increased to account for decreases in FY11.
Swift and Kepler mission operations are extended through FY16 with funding for data analysis.
Planck will support one year extended operations of the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI).
Spitzer’s operations are extended through FY14 with closeout in FY15.
U.S. science support of Suzaku is extended to March 2015, to provide one-year overlap with Astro-H.
Funding for U.S. support of XMM-Newton is also extended through March 2015.
Fermi operations are extended through FY16, with a 10 percent per year reduction starting in FY14.

All FY15-FY16 decisions are for planning purposes and will be revisited in the 2014 Senior Review.


  1. #1 astro
    April 3, 2012

    I agree with your concerns that when committees of scientists say things like “The conclusion from both ranking strategies is that there are no “clunkers” in the group. This is a strong suite of missions making excellent progress on a wide range of scientific issues. They are all fully deserving of NASA support.” it’s not very useful to a NASA admin who has to cut something. Worse, it risks passing the decision upstairs to people who are not in as good a position to understand the science.

    That said, they did make some clear statements of priorities in Sec. 2. Within Discovery-class missions
    “The SRC ranked Kepler the highest, with Fermi and Warm Spitzer tied, so they are listed alphabetically..”

    I was under the impression that their biggest decision was to be whether to support HST or Chandra, even if it meant killing nearly everything else. It appears that they recommended to support both!

    I’m guessing that this won’t help any of the mission plan even one year in advance. That makes it difficult to retain many key people with very specialized knowledge that are extremely costly to replace.

  2. #2 ToSeek
    April 3, 2012

    Goddard may have felt they’ve done enough by cutting back Hubble flight operations on-site support from 24/7 to 8/5, as they did a couple of years ago.

  3. #3 x-ray astronomer
    April 3, 2012

    The Suzaku ranking is easily understood and not very strange. If you take a look at the report, the recommendation is that they recommend that in addition to funding the guest observer facility – which is necessary for the mission to proceed – the Suzaku guest observer program should be funded again (it is not at the moment, Suzaku observations are only eligible for ADAP).

    I do not know any budget numbers, but I would assume that the GOF is only a handful of people, while Planck/Fermi are both very large compared to Suzaku. In other words: funding Suzaku or XMM above the requested numbers might be comparable to cutting the HST PR budget by a few percent…

    Concerning the commenters above: I think it is very clear from the report that the panel recommends diversity, i.e., fund small missions where the scientific return is large (if you measure the return in papers per dollar spent), at the expense of large missions. That is very clear, especially in the criticism to HST, where the panel essentially says that the project did a *very* bad job in justifying their budget numbers, while the small missions are all applauded for their well argued and understandable cases.

  4. #4 gamma-ray sky
    April 3, 2012

    I agree that the message remains obscure, and one has to read between the lines, which may mean that one reads what one wants to read. However I think that a general criticism toward large missions, such as HST, emerges quite clearly. Also Fermi did not perform great. Being a young mission, I would have expected it to have a better ranking than the old Spitzer, and certainly a greater discovery space! Smaller missions like Swift did a better job in justifying their budgets and the need of extended operations. A lesson to learn.

  5. #5 Heinrich Monroe
    April 3, 2012

    It is absolutely striking that this Review has basically given the pass to all missions brought before it. Were they not given a hard limit on available extended operations funding, as the 2010 Review was given? The report seems unaware of any budget availability numbers, except flapping their hands and saying that life is always hard.

    The uniformity of the grades in the different categories sure doesn’t look like there was much of a curve. I guess if there are few budget constraints, you just bless everyone, tip your hat, and leave the room.

    Aside from vague identifications of negatives for many of the missions, which is hardly surprising for any of them, that NASA can use to (gently) beat on them, what exactly did this committee do?

  6. #6 asdf
    April 4, 2012

    Maybe the money is there, at least for FY13. In NASA FY2013 request budgets for the HST, Physics of the Cosmos (Chandra, XMM, Planck, Fermi), Swift, and Suzaku are essentially the same as in FY12. Funding for Spitzer and Kepler is reduced, but the new Astrophysics Senior Review budget line is enough to cover these cuts, and there’s a couple of million extra for augmentations. Notional FY14 numbers seem to make things a bit more difficult… Of course there’s also the slight problem that the congress has to accept the budget.

  7. #7 Eli Rabett
    April 8, 2012

    Probably what happened is that they didn’t want to give arrows to Congress

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