NASA and astronomy community looking for ways to keep Spitzer going

Although NASA accepted last month a recommendation by a senior review panel not to continue the Spitzer Space Telescope, NASA and the astronomy community are working on ways to continue the mission at a reduced funding level by freeing up funds elsewhere in the astrophysics program.

“We have invited the Spitzer program to submit a reclama—that’s an appeal—to us as an overguide as part of our budget formulation process” for fiscal year 2016, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a NASA town hall during the 224th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Boston on Monday. That proposal will be considered this summer as the agency prepares to submit a budget request to the White House.

Hertz indicated that any proposal to continue Spitzer operations, even at a reduced funding level (NASA requested $14.2 million for the program for fiscal year 2015) would have to be paid for from elsewhere in the astrophysics budget. “Asking for new money is not part of my phase space,” he said. “In order to consider Spitzer, we have to spend less money on something else we were planning to do.”

Hertz said he has asked the various scientific advisory committees involved in the astrophysics program for suggestions on what could potentially be reduced in order to free up funds for Spitzer. “I’ve received a lot of input on that,” he said, adding that process of soliciting ideas was continuing. “There’s a relatively small number of places where NASA astrophysics is spending money and where we could spend less to continue Spitzer.”

“It doesn’t make me happy to be here talking to you about these kinds of decisions,” he said, “but unfortunately, in an era where our budget is constrained, we can only continue some fraction of the things we would like to be doing. We have to prioritize in some manner.”

The news is perhaps a little more optimistic for SOFIA, the airborne observatory whose future was placed in doubt in the administration’s 2015 budget request. The Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill passed by the House last week includes $70 million for SOFIA, about 80 percent of the program’s current budget but far above the $12 million requested to mothball the observatory. Hertz said after the town hall meeting that NASA is looking at what implications the House figure would have on SOFIA operations in terms of flight rates and other activities.

24 comments to NASA and astronomy community looking for ways to keep Spitzer going

  • James

    Why not turn Spitzer over to Keith Cowling et al, and let them crowdsource the funds to continue operating – at a reduced level?

  • My understanding is Spitzer is out of LHe2. It’s game over. Start designing its replacement, preferably a spacecraft that can be serviced by SLS.

    • Jeff Foust

      Spitzer ran out of coolant several years ago, but is still operating in “warm” mode. The senior review had no issue with the science Spitzer is performing, only that it could’t justify keeping it going given its current costs and overall budgets. It is highly unlikely space-based IR observatory in the foreseeable future will have servicing requirements that would necessitate the use of the Space Launch System.

      • Dubious. Warm mode is degraded mode so the mission is of less value, which is why it is being cut. All of these IR missions seem to be limited by the amount of LHe2 they carry. Solve that problem and you greatly increase their lifetime and usefulness. There is precedence for manned servicing of Hubble, which has used cryo-cooled instruments, though the cooling units were integrated. It seems natural to me to extend that capability to future missions in deep space using cryo-fluid transfer from Orion.

        • Hiram

          “All of these IR missions seem to be limited by the amount of LHe2 they carry.”

          There are no future IR missions “on the books” that use expendable cryogens. The problem has been solved, and not with HSF or SLS.

          HST was an unusual case, in which it was old enough that it wasn’t designed to be easily serviced telerobotically. A major effort was devoted a decade ago to explore that telerobotic servicing option for HST, and nevertheless it came up looking pretty sensible. For a modern mission, telerobotic servicing would be VASTLY more sensible. To the extent that space astronomy missions need servicing, the Hubble strategy will almost certainly not be used.

        • Vladislaw

          So your plan is to use a 1.5 billion dollar disposable rocket and a 1.1 billion dollar disposable capsule to bring coolent to a 500 million dollar probe?

          now THAT is rocket science….

      • Hiram

        The days of IR space telescopes with expendable cryogens is over. Modern designs (e.g. JAXA SPICA) are entirely mechanical cryocooler-based allowing, in principle, unlimited lifetime. No one in their right mind would design an observatory that required expendable cryogen refills, at least in this day and age. In the olden days, yes, that was a strategy that was considered.

        In order to do this, a space observatory needs to be in a cold place, where one can block the Sun and not have the warm Earth shining much on you. Cool/cold future telescopes will be at ES L2 in order to achieve this. Spitzer is in heliocentric orbit, moving farther and farther away from the Earth, at about 0.1 AU per year. We frankly don’t envision humans chasing a telescope around the Sun in order to service it, and it’s even a long way out to ES L2.

        The “warm mode” science that Spitzer is doing is a small fraction of the science it used to be able to do. It’s good science, but is science that could be better done by more modern telescopes with more respectable aperture. The judgement that is being made isn’t about science goodness, but about strategy for getting the best science. That’s an important distinction that is often not appreciated.

        • Spitzer is in heliocentric orbit, moving farther and farther away from the Earth, at about 0.1 AU per year.

          Precisely why I mentioned SLS in the first place.

          Modern designs (e.g. JAXA SPICA) are entirely mechanical cryocooler-based allowing

          Not yet flown and project is slipping. If it is successful, I will stand corrected.

          It’s good science

          ‘Good science’ is a euphemism for mundane. Again, this is why Spitzer is being axed, which was my original point. Is it the message or the messenger?

          • Hiram

            “Precisely why I mentioned SLS in the first place.”

            … and, re SPICA

            “Not yet flown and project is slipping. If it is successful, I will stand corrected.”

            SLS/Orion is not yet flown, and the project is slipping. So what’s your point?

            My point is that there are NO designs for a cutting edge astronomy mission that would use expendable cryogens. So you’re aiming SLS at something that not only doesn’t exist, but won’t. But hey, that’s what SLS is all about! At least we’re being consistent here. As noted, it would be nuts to send a several billion dollar mission to top up a ~$500M (development cost) technological antique.

            “‘Good science’ is a euphemism for mundane.”

            That’s a defensible presumption, depending on your definition of “mundane”. I won’t comment here. As I said, it’s not about “good science”, but rather about seeking the best science.

      • reader

        Yay and big cheers for all the robotic spacecraft servicing technology we have deployed and shaken out over the years. Like reloading coolants or stationkeeping propellants into space telescopes and other silly things.

        Imagine, when JWST launches with its $10B price tag and something minor gets hit.

  • E.P. Grondine

    You have to remember that this kind of problem is systemic in NASA space science.

    Spend a couple of hundred million for a probe, another hundred million for launch, but never plan/budget for operations, bandwidth, data storage, or data analysis.

    It appears that functionally NASA buys launches to support the launch industry. The science itself is never exmained on a cost/benefit basis. NASA supports scientists/clients to justify the launches.

    Thus you get science probes designed for certain classes of launchers as part of NASA’s normal “science” process.

    There was a fight for NASA’s science data storage system, successfully completed, after which I left the scene.

    To give them their props, in my view Keith and his associates in the unmanned space flight community are doing good work.

    Politically, his strategy ties manned Mars flight supporters and the existing NASA space science clients.

    Of course, if your own scientists are not among that existing client base, it makes life difficult.

    Especially in the fight for NASA space science dollars, which they view as theirs by divine right.

    (Hiram’s comments on impact science here at space politics on impact science are an example of this.)

    But I really resent the loss of the TOMS data series (Total Ozone Mapping System), which was one of the key climate research tools. (It covered the Suns interaction with the Earth.)

    There was no hue and cry over this.

    Moving on to my own field of research, we lost key observational data during the fight for continued NEO Wise operation.

    Finally, as a gross example of the NASA science process, to this day, the different observatories images of the impacts of the fragments of Shoemaker Levy 9 in Jupiter have not been put into one continuous video by NASA.

    (Since my stroke I lack the ability to do that myself now.
    These short notes here take me a long time.)

    • E.P. Grondine

      I need to add here that there needs to be one person responsible for dealing with the impact hazard reporting directly to the AA for Space Science.

      The current NASA organiational structure does not work for dealing with this hazard, and can not work, IMO.

    • Hiram

      “Spend a couple of hundred million for a probe, another hundred million for launch, but never plan/budget for operations, bandwidth, data storage, or data analysis.”

      This discussion is about Spitzer. The $800M budget for Spitzer included operations, bandwidth, data storage and data analysis. What rock were you hiding under? For the prime mission plus an extended mission lasting many years, including after cryogen depletion. NASA has zero obligation to run spacecraft until they die. Those spacecraft have a mission, and they perform that mission. By that time, new technologies make it inefficient to do life support on old spacecraft.

      As to the ISEE-3 hobbyists. Give me a break. ISEE_3 was a science spacecraft. These guys aren’t doing any science. They’re just joyriding. It’s a stunt, and it’s a fun stunt.

      As to the rest of your post, it’s really not that coherent.

      • Robert G. Oler

        see if they can get it going and in a stable orbit…they then might do some science. RGO

      • E.P. Grondine

        Hi Hiram –

        “As to the rest of your post, it’s really not that coherent.”

        We are working from different frames of reference.

        You come from the school of cosmologists, and your remarks generally reflect your biases.

        I do not come from that background. Once again, NASA does other science which must be done (and was done) with space based assets.

        In regards to Spitzer, you have to ask why the comosmologists recieve prefered treatment in comparision with other scientists.

        My observatons on NASA science management techniques were formed in the early 1990’s and in regard to planetary data sets and Earth data sets.

        I am quite pleased with the data warehousing that was set up then.

        There are significant challenges ahead for NASA in both data storage and data analysis.

        As well as in the selection of science goals.

        Amazingly, you can focus science spending on problems and arrive with useful results.

  • Robert G. Oler

    let Wingo and his group play with it////seriously some university or something can do it with a lot less money RGO

    • James

      Exactly my point!

      • Dick Eagleson

        It looks to me as though this sort of thing is coming up often enough that NASA ought to have a formal policy/process in place. They’ve already done a number of lease deals on surplus Earthside infrastructure that is useful to commercial ventures – e.g., SpaceX’s lease of LC-39A and the leasing of surplus shuttle support facilities to a number of private concerns. Why not expand the concept to aging in-space assets-becoming-liabilities as well? Admittedly, the ISEE-3 thing has more the flavor of puppy rescue about it than it does a lease of assets, but, hey, those are two models on a continuum of possible arrangements. Save our probes from euthanasia at the pound say I!

        • Hiram

          Don’t be fooled. The ISSE-3 thing wasn’t about recovering science capability. It was about joyriding. As I said above, that’s pretty slick, but it has nothing to do with the original intent of the mission. It isn’t preserving or rescuing the mission, it’s maybe rescuing the spacecraft and certainly creative entertainment. In fact, it’s preserving the parts of the spacecraft that DON’T do science.

          I wish when people look at that work on ISEE-3 they would get this through their heads. Considering “mission capability” a matter of just propulsion, navigation, and communication is, at least for a science mission, just stupid. HSF sometimes seems to work the same way. It’s about driving places and not about doing things.

          • Robert G. Oler

            Hiram…look Wingo and I certainly clash on a lot of things, well almost everything BTW but in some matters his heart is in the right place and this is one of them.

            ISEE rescue is to me a good move. It does a few things; first it demonstrates that this can be done outside of the science illuinate, two it will take a spacecraft that has some use left in it and use it commensurate with the dollars it is worh (Inshallah) and finally I think it generates some good press and a modest but solid “excitement”

            We will see what can be done with it. NASA quits on a lot of spacecraft when the folks who are the main figures grow tired of it and move on to other government funded efforts…they quit on Viking 1 and there are others.

            Making use out of something that seems to be tossed, reclaiming, is a good conservative move…and Wingo and his team have done that with the lunar pics and are doing it here.

            I for one applaud them. RGO

            • Hiram

              “ISEE rescue is to me a good move.”

              I think you’re exactly right about this. What they’re doing is fun, creative, and innovative. It’s exciting. I very much applaud their efforts. But, it’s NOT rescuing a science mission. It’s rescuing a spacecraft. It’s making use of that spacecraft for exercising capability in hobbyist command-and-control of space assets. NOT doing the science it was intended to do. (It’s not clear they can’t do’ the science ISEE-3 was intended to do, but that’s just not what they’re doing. I suspect they don’t have a lot of expertise in exploring the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind.)

              No, the “main figures” of ISEE-3 or Viking didn’t “get tired” of those missions. That’s just a naive, and slightly insulting fabrication. They probably would have very much liked to be funded to continue their work, but NASA is looking at the best science potential for that money, and made a decision not to continue the mission on taxpayer dollars in order to get better science.

              Again, let’s applaud, but just be very careful here what we’re both applauding, and where hearts are truly at. The use that they are making of ISEE-3 is quite different than what ISEE-3 was intended to be used for. In fact, their use of ISEE-3 is not something that the federal government could justifiably spend money on. It may be worth it to Wingo, but it’s not worth it to the taxpayer.

          • E.P. Grondine

            Hi Hiram –

            “Where their hearts are truly at…”

            Over at, you’ll find a group of amateurs and art professionals working with old planetary data sets, and coming up with very very good results on their own dime.

            (Of course, the Venus surface images show what imaging professionals can now do with old data sets.)

            The recovery of the LOIRP data shows what is being done as well. You have to ask yourself why NASA let this happen to that data in the first place.

            (Well, you yourself don’t have to, but other people do.)

            As far as ISEE goes, it might have been used at an academic level for exercises in spacecraft control.
            And if you look at it, it probably is.

            On their own dime.

            • Hiram

              “Over at, you’ll find a group of amateurs and art professionals working with old planetary data sets, and coming up with very very good results on their own dime.”

              Art professionals?? Yuk yuk.

              Good results?? I haven’t seen any in accepted planetary science journals. Links appreciated. Yes, good as in keen and nifty. But good as in advancing the field? Nah.

              “You have to ask yourself why NASA let this happen to that data in the first place.”

              Sure. And the answer is … ta, ta … that there wasn’t a lot of science worth to it.

              “As far as ISEE goes, it might have been used at an academic level for exercises in spacecraft control.”

              Very true. And did they do that? Nope.

              Let me say again that these efforts show a huge amount of initiative and creativity. I think it’s wonderful they are challenging themselves to do this. But it ain’t science. Period. You can slather these guys with praise, but just make sure you’re praising the right things.

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