This week, thousands of astronomers will gather outside Washington, DC, for the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). During the meeting, astronomers will share the latest results on everything from exoplanets to cosmology. However, there will also be plenty of discussion about future ground- and space-based observatories, as plans for ambitious future missions run into conflicts with budgets that struggle to maintain even existing facilities.
Last month, NASA released a document titled “Enduring Quests, Daring Visions: NASA Astrophysics in the Next Three Decades.” The document serves as a roadmap of the astrophysics research scientists believe will be priorities through the 2030s, and the notional spacecraft missions to accomplish them. Those scientific priorities boil down to three questions: “Are we alone?” (the search for biosignatures on exoplanets), “How did we get here?” (the formation of the universe), and “How does the universe work?” (the fundamental physics of the universe.) “Seeking answers to these age-old questions are Enduring Quests of humankind,” the document states (capitalization in original.)
The document includes a list of missions both under development (James Webb Space Telescope) or active study (the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST) as well as “Formative” and “Visionary” concepts for the 2020s and 2030s, respectively. And some of those long-range missions concepts are indeed visionary: the “ExoEarth Mapper”, for example, “will combine signals from an armada of large optical telescopes orbiting hundreds of kilometers apart, producing the first resolved images of earthlike planets around other stars.” A “Cosmic Dawn Mapper” would emplace an array of radio telescopes on the far side of the Moon, shielded from the Earth’s radio din, to study the structure of the universe’s earliest eras.
The missions included in the report are notional concepts only, with no effort to try and determine just how much those missions would cost. But these concepts almost certainly clash with the tight budgets NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are facing for their astrophysics programs. At around the same time NASA released its long-term vision for astrophysics, the NSF released a “Dear Colleague” letter updating their efforts to divest a number of existing observatories. That lettre was an update of efforts reported at last January’s AAS meeting to either close or hand over to other organizations a number of observatories currently supported, partially or entirely, by the NSF.
The letter showed that divestment effort is going slowly. The Department of Energy (DOE) is interested in using the 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona, operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the letter states, for a proposed dark energy study, but the timing of DOE funding is uncertain. The future of several other optical and radio astronomy observatories included in the letter remains uncertain because of ongoing discussions with several potential parters. For example, the letter says “substantial” discussions are underway with unnamed universities to take over future operations of the Green Bank Telescope radio observatory in West Virginia.
If there is good news in the near term, it’s that, for NASA at least, budgets won’t be as cut as sharply as feared. In November, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, warned sequestration could cut the division’s budget from $617 million in 2013 to perhaps $592 million in 2014, cuts that could jeopardize operations of ongoing missions in the upcoming senior review of those missions.
With a budget deal in place that avoids an across-the-board sequester, though, that worst-case scenario now looks unlikely. In a presentation Saturday at a meeting of the Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group, or ExoPAG, held in advance of the main AAS meeting, NASA’s Doug Hudgins said that while a final fiscal year 2014 budget isn’t done yet, “our expectation is that the astrophysics budget in ’14 is going to be somewhere between the president’s request of $642 million and the FY13 post-sequestration number” of $617 million. “We expect to be somewhere in there, but obviously that depends on the deliberations that are going on on the Hill.”