10 February 2012
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 investorsto 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.
The segmented mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope will be the largest of their kind in space.
In the past 20 years, relatively cushy budgets have allowed different astronomical groups to indulge in big, narrowly-focused projects. The Great Observatories program has launched four expensive space-based telescopes, each specializing in a specific wavelength of light: Hubble for optical/UV, Compton for gamma radiation, Chandra for X-rays, and Spitzer for the infrared.
“Our community has been spoiled in past decades by very generous federal funding for space science,” said Mountain.
But now, the majority of astronomers will have to rely on only one upcoming enormous project, the James Webb Space Telescope. And any major mission that comes after JWST will have to push the envelope further, which means new expensive technology and intense testing to make sure it works it work in space.
Part of the solution could come from emerging technologies, said physicist Paul Goldsmith, chief technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led a special session at the AAS meeting devoted to ideas for reducing project prices. Astronomers may be able to turn to new materials for coating mirrors, better ways to reduce the blurring of light, and increased computer power for controlling system.
But the best scientific advancements will ultimately only come from larger telescopes and that will require overcoming some sociological hurdles.
“The real issue isn’t how to make telescopes affordable in this age of austerity,” said Mountain. “It’s how do you create a consensus around a much more limited number of flagships.”
The project currently dominating the community, JWST, is best suited for peering far into the cosmos, uncovering the earliest era of galaxy formation and helping determine the nature of dark matter and energy.
This has left some astronomers feeling left out. The small but growing exoplanet community has long pushed for a dedicated space-based telescope mission that would directly detect light from planets around other stars, potentially revealing the presence of life on these distant worlds. But as long as NASA’s money is tied up in JWST, such a project is unlikely to find funding.
“The exoplanet community and the deep-universe community each want something very different and are pulling NASA in opposite directions,” said Goldsmith. “But if we can get them together, we all win.”
Planetary scientists and heliophysicists are also unhappy with JWST’s cost overruns. In September, theypublicly declared their opposition to the amount of money NASA continues to pour into the telescope.
The dissent has already forced JWST to be more inclusive. Small tweaks to its design have made it much more useful for exoplanet detection. It’s not the dedicated telescope that the community may want but it can still be valuable, said astronomer David Charbonneau, a member of the team running NASA’s Kepler space telescope that searches for new exoplanets, during a speech at the AAS meeting.
The lesson, says Goldsmith, is that any telescope mission coming after JWST will need everyone on board in order to succeed.
NASA Goddard’s High Bay clean room, where components of the James Webb Space Telescope are being assembled.
Divide and Conquer
NASA has a lot of experience with big missions, which is why the agency is likely to continue along this path.
But the agency’s history is also filled with cautionary tales. Hubble, for instance, is a great success but the mission had to please many different communities, which had an impact on the telescope’s performance.
“So they built it with four or five instruments, which makes the design much more complicated, the instruments much less capable, and the whole project much more expensive,” said Arav.
The layers of bureaucracy at NASA and other government agencies lead to inefficiencies that only serve to escalate costs, said Arav. And NASA doesn’t tolerate failures, so the agency must repeatedly test and retest their projects, further increasing expenses.
“If you really want to increase science, you say, ‘I will build 10 small, cheap things, and five of them will fail, but I don’t care, because I have five that will actually work,’” said Arav.
NASA tried an approach like this in the 1990s under Administrator Dan Goldin’s “faster, better, cheaper” program. But after two successful Mars missions, Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor, the agency experienced two dramatic failures in the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. (Famously, Mars Climate Orbiter’s crash occurred because engineers mixed up metric and English units.)
Though the program had a 50 percent failure rate, it still resulted in two successful missions and the total cost added up to $1.7 billion. This is far less than NASA’s current behemoth mission to the Red Planet, the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory, which saw its own share of cost overruns and delays.
Arav suggests space-based missions might be better served by private industry rather than government agencies. This highlights a larger tension that the entire space industry is wrestling with: whether or not it can rely on new private companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, that claim they can significantly bring down the cost of spaceflight. Might this approach actually work for astronomical research?
“I think it’s a very naive view,” said Goldsmith. “Industry is good at certain things but I don’t think that they have any magic dust either.”
Private industry’s ability to reduce prices mainly comes from economies of scale, said Goldmsith. “Once you’ve made your 3 millionth iPhone, you know how much the 3 million and first is going to cost,” he said. “But nobody’s doing mass production of large telescopes.”
Arav acknowledges that space telescopes will be expensive no matter who builds them. But NASA has too long a history of asking astronomers to put all their eggs in one giant, gold-plated basket, he said.
Instead, he would like to see more innovation in the form of competitive prizes, something along the lines of the Department of Defense’s DARPA Grand Challenge – a contest to build self-driving cars. The competition brought out small teams from industry and academia that were eventually successful in creating new technology. A private non-profit organization, the X Prize Foundation, has produced similar contests for launching new reusable manned vehicles into space and landing robotic probes on the moon.
NASA could offer a $100 million prize for the first team to successfully launch a small telescope into space, Arav suggested. If no one succeeds, the agency pays nothing. But if they do deliver, the mission is already 10 times cheaper than a flagship project.
“If you allow for innovation, if you allow people to fail, if you don’t have the huge bureaucracy and you focus on that, then you can maximize your business model,” Arav said.