Friday, February 10, 2012

U.S. Space Science Confronts New Economic Reality

U.S. Space Science Confronts New Economic Reality:

The Hubble space telescope floats above the Earth.

Astronomers are worried.

It’s not some new unexplained mystery of the universe or the upcoming launch of a space telescope that is unnerving them, though. The problems they currently face are much more down-to-Earth — and the future of space exploration hangs in the balance.

The anxiety stems from the fact that astronomy, especially space-based astronomy, is just plain expensive. And with federal budgets tightening, the government will be less and less able to make huge investments in big science projects.

“We may see in the next decade or so an end to the search for the laws of nature which will not be resumed again in our own lifetimes,” warned Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg in January during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

The president’s upcoming 2013 federal budget request, which will be released Feb. 13, will include a taste of things to come for U.S. space science. NASA is likely to have fewer resources in the near future. Smaller reserves and fewer missions have already caused divisions and public fights between different groups of scientists. If astronomers want to build bigger telescopes that can do better science, NASA says that they have to band together and agree on a very limited number of big flagship projects.

“Right now, everyone needs to step back a little bit and ask not ‘how can I have mine’ but ‘how can we have ours,’” said astronomer Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute that oversees operations of Hubble and other telescopes.

But some astronomers claim that consensus-building and political thinking are getting in the way of research. Packing multiple instruments into a single project leads to increased costs without necessarily delivering more science. The result is a mission that will be able to do more things, but less well.

“Everyone likes the big flashy flagships,” said astronomer Nahum Arav of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “This is what Congress will approve, this is how we satisfy the community. But you are not being driven by science, you are driven by lots of different levels of political thinking.”

Instead, astronomers like Arav say it’s time for NASA to take a look at how it does business and see if there’s a better way. Rather than working on enormous and expensive projects, perhaps the community could be better served with a suite of smaller, cheaper, more focused missions and increased competition.

If the astronomy community can’t agree on which tack to take, science could suffer greatly and the United States stands to lose its dominance in space science and technology. If a big, expensive mission gets funding, but some of the astronomy community doesn’t support it, the project becomes extremely vulnerable to being killed by a Congress that needs to find budget cuts. This leaves European missions — which are often smaller in scale and enjoy long-term funding commitments — at the forefront.

Particle physicists learned the hard way that the government is willing to abandon a project even if billions of dollars have already been spent on it, as was the case with the Super Conducting Super Collider. When that project got the axe, Europe’s Large Hadron Collider stood to become the world’s biggest collider and the center of the particle physics world.

All of these concerns are coming to the forefront in anticipation of the new budget. In recent years, astronomy’s main federal funding sources, NASA and the National Science Foundation, have seen modest funding increases at best, while NASA’s 2012 funding fell roughly $650 million to $17.8 billion.

Shrinking budgets have already cast a shadow over nearly every area of astronomy. Space-based flagship-scale missions — projects like the Hubble space telescope or its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope — are likely to only get funded once every 20 or 30 years. Cost overruns on the massive James Webb project — which has grown from an original $1 billion estimate to the current $8.7 billion price tag — are an ever-increasing portion of NASA’s budget, leaving project managers of smaller missions looking nervously over their shoulders.

The NSF announced in January that it can no longer afford to support either of the large ground-based telescopes currently under construction, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope. This throws the future of both projects into question and could cause them to lose their foreign investors to the European Extremely Large Telescope.

NASA’s planetary science division also seems destined to take a significant hit, possibly losing 20 percent of its budget next year with additional reductions through 2017. Earlier this week, the European Space Agency revealed that NASA may back out of two planned joint Mars missions — an orbiting satellite scheduled to launch in 2016 and an advanced rover that would be the first part of a Mars sample-return mission in 2018.

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