Space scariness

Anyhoo. Enough of this moral philosophy. I think next time I see Tom S in the pub we will be in a for a several pint session. So. No change there then.

I’m orff ski-ing in the morning so no posts for a bit. Let me leave you depressed. You probably just read Telescoper’s post about NASA bailing out of LISA. That is indeed particularly distressing news for Cardiff. But its bigger and worse than this. I strongly recommend you read the post at Dynamics of Cats. Stein is always worth reading : regularly tickles the funny bone. But not this one. The plug is also pulled on IXO. Now, LISA and IXO are two out of the three L-class missions in ESA’s Cosmic Visions programme… what the hell happens now ?

Comment No. 22 on Stein’s post is interesting … it states that rather than NASA unilaterally pulling out, they did so because ESA pushed … they knew NASA was going to have trouble coughing up so they said they would continue studies alone. Anybody got more gen on this ?

It might get worse. Stein points out that JWST has been taken out of the Astrophysics budget and put in as its very own line item. Maybe this gives it super-high status. But as the US government shuts down because they can’t agree a budget (my Smithsonian chums are on furlough), JWST looks scarily exposed. Don’t think its too far down the road to stop. The US government has proved itself capable of cutting losses.

Remember the Alamo SSC.

12 Responses to Space scariness

  1. Latest post from Stein here sets out official word from NASA on LISA (with IXO presumably to follow suit shortly).

    His posting includes a link to slides from Jon Morse to astrophysics sub-committee of NASA Advisory Council on Thu 7th, with LISA/IXO update on slide 8.

  2. Where are you skiing? I usually go to Sweden (or Norway) during the Easter holidays (downhill skiing, not cross-country), but Easter is so late this year there might not be any snow left (it’s far in the north but the mountains aren’t that high) so we might have to try somewhere else this year.

    • andyxl says:

      Phillip – I have been in Les Arcs, at 2000m and up. Arc-2000 still has snow, but Arc1800 doesn’t. The first two days we were skiing in 30 degree weather ! Then it snowed again…

      • OK, so you weren’t in the Scottish Highlands. 🙂

        I did my first skiing at Les Arcs, at a Morion conference where there was a cheap rate for a beginner’s course. That was 1998 IIRC. I didn’t go skiing again for almost 10 years, but for the last four years have been in Sälen in Sweden. Decided to pass this year because of the weather, because my oldest son has more important stuff to do (finishing school soon) and, as I learned today, my knee probably needs an operation. So maybe next year in Sälen, or perhaps at a Moriond conference again.

  3. telescoper says:

    According to my spies, it does appear that you’re right that ESA more-or-less made forced NASA’s hand on LISA. Another problem to be mentioned is the “technology demonstrator” LISA Pathfinder, which is itself way over budget and has been delayed a number of times. It’s officially scheduled for launch in 2013, but from what I’ve heard that’s not something you should bet on (even if you’ve won the Templeton Prize and can afford a loss).

  4. Albert Zijlstra says:

    Space-based astronomy has had a productive decade, thanks to NASA’s Great Observatories. And we still have ESA’s GAIA mission to look forward to, while Kepler is doing nicely. But the largest missions are becoming too expensive and therefore vulnerable. We would benefit from more focus on medium-sized missions. Or, dare I suggest ground-based telescopes?

    Most posters in our institute currently advertise conferences on telescopes that do not exist yet. Virtual astronomy is back.

    • MikeW says:


      Space missions are certainly expensive, and becoming more so, and I agree that focusing on medium-sized missions is wise. But putting more money into ground-based telescopes won’t do much for high energy astrophysics (which can only be done from space until one reaches CTA energies) or for gravitational wave astronomy (where ground-based facilities probe different frequencies).

  5. MikeW says:

    The NASA (2012) budget contains no money for LISA, IXO or indeed WFIRST. So pulling the plug on LISA and IXO was a bit final, but the decision had already been made in a sense (about a month ago). Not sure if ESA pushed them into anything, they just don’t have any money until JWST is launched in 2018 (I hear). Word is that they won’t start WFIRST until JWST is in space.

    All 3 ESA L-class mission candidates were joint projects with NASA (and JAXA for IXO). The Jupiter mission (variously Laplace/EJSM on the ESA side) is also in funding trouble because the US Planetary Decadal survey put Mars ahead of Jupiter and did not list the NASA contribution to the project (JEO; the ESA contribution is JGO) in its realistic budget scenario.

    ESA has recently announced that the decisions on its L-class missions will be delayed until Feb.2012 to allow time for European-led (or probably European-only) mission concepts to be developed. This is going to be challenge for all 3 projects – maybe somewhat easier for Laplace as the concept involved separate ESA and NASA spacecraft.

    Finally the launch delay for LISA Pathfinder mentioned by Peter is, I think, pretty certain. See this for example .

  6. Mark McCaughrean says:


    I think Stein’s blog post is a little misleading, as are most (but not all) of the comments underneath it, pointing the finger of blame willy-nilly at whichever target each poster tends to disfavour. On your blog, MikeW’s reply catches more of the truth of the matter as seen from the ESA perspective, but I thought I’d add a little more background.

    That is, both IXO and LISA were effectively dead as the envisaged multi-billion international collaborations the minute the US astrophysics decadal survey was published last year. Coming third and fourth in the priority list meant that they were very unlikely to happen, even under the budget environment as it existed then, with WFIRST and enhancing the Explorer programme (as well as, implicitly, finishing JWST) all coming ahead of them. Things have only become more challenging (to use a PC euphemism) for the NASA science budget since the President’s FY12 budget request came out, and that’s even before the Tea Partiers have got their knives into it.

    Similarly, the FY12 budget request means that NASA can really only afford one or other of the two top flagship items in the subsequently-published planetary decadal survey and even then, only at a reduced cost. With the Mars MAX-C sample return caching rover as a higher priority than the Jupiter Europa Mission (JEO), NASA’s potential contribution to the joint ESA-NASA EJSM-Laplace L-mission, that effectively rules the latter out. For NASA, both Mars and Jupiter would come out of the same pot of money, whereas for ESA, Jupiter would come out of the mandatory programme, while Mars comes out of the optional ExoMars pot.

    Keep in mind too that MAX-C is not even the top overall priority in the planetary decadal, with a continued Discovery programme, participation in the 2016 ESA-NASA Mars Trace Gas Orbiter, and two new New Frontiers missions coming ahead of it. Thus, even finding enough money to do a descoped MAX-C in 2018 jointly with ESA’s ExoMars rover may mean scraping money from things above it in the list, but that’s for another post.

    Anyway, when it became clear in early March that IXO, LISA, and EJSM-Laplace (i.e. all three of ESA’s L-mission candidates) were essentially not feasible as envisaged in the current decade, we felt we needed to act in order not to continue spending money on missions with no immediate future. We had some lengthy discussions within the ESA executive on this, also consulting with the chairs of SPC and SSAC, and in the end decided to call a halt to the current L-mission studies. This was not an easy step to take, but we had little choice.

    We then more or less immediately opened new studies in the same three scientific areas (X-ray astronomy, gravitational wave astrophysics, Jupiter icy moon studies). We decided to restrict it to these three, since a substantial amount of technology work has been done for them already, and we need to get something launched sooner rather than later for ESA work and financial flow reasons. To open the call to completely new ideas might mean years of additional technology studies and could have added a much longer delay before launch.

    The aim now is to see what might technically be possible within the context of European-only missions, keeping the ESA contribution at roughly the same €700M (inflation adjusted) as we were envisaging as our part of the larger L-missions, and with ESA member state contributions to hardware and perhaps data processing on the order of €100-300M, depending on the mission. Let’s call the envelope a round €1B for planning purposes.

    So, we (ESA and the three re-formed science teams) are now looking hard at what could be done for that money and aim to present the outcomes to SSAC and SPC at the beginning of 2012 for scientific and programmatic evaluation. Exactly how things will proceed beyond that is not defined yet, if only because it’s new territory and we’re finding our way as we go. Although we hope not, perhaps none of the new smaller missions will present a scientifically exciting and technically/programmatically viable solution, at which point we’ll have to figure out what to do next.

    We announced this new approach to the ESA Advisory Structure, SPC, and the three science teams, as well as NASA and JAXA, in mid-March. We then discussed it in detail with NASA at our recently six-monthly bilateral with them at the end of March, and they fully understood why we are doing what we’re doing. As a result, after the bilateral, NASA then announced last week to their community that it was ceasing work on IXO, LISA, and EJSM-Laplace as they existed, although I believe that they will be receiving some run-out funding in FY11.

    NASA have said that if ESA picks any of these three new “lowercase-l” missions, they may well be interested in coming back in at a relatively minor (say $100-150M) level as a mission of opportunity, and thus they will be participating in the new studies with an observer status. But for now, we are studying European-only missions, in order to see if we can arrive at suitably compelling options that we can do independently. For the record, we are definitely not carrying any favourites internally: while the essentially independent European Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter (JGO) part of the joint EJSM-Laplace might seem to be in pole position in terms of technical readiness, let’s see what the X-ray and gravitational wave teams can come up with as well. None of the three communities is likely to give up without one hell of a fight, which suits me just fine 🙂

    Hopefully that provides a little more background to what went on. We are where we are and I don’t think it’s at all helpful to get into the blame game (e.g. did ESA push NASA, did NASA push ESA, did the decadal surveys get it wrong, is JWST screwing up things, did the bankers screw everyone’s economy, etc.?): we need to see if we can coax a phoenix out of these ashes, hopefully a phoenix that can fly sooner rather than later.

  7. andyxl says:

    For the few of you left who don’t read Paul Crowther’s Twitter feed, there is a suggestion here that the JWST launch may slip to 2024

  8. Paul Crowther says:

    Reading between the lines in the story, Scolese (NASA Ass. Administrator) seems to be highlighting the severe consequences of a low annual budget of $375m/yr for JWST. Separately this week I heard that the launch could still be earlier than 2018 if the rate of spending were higher. Mark M may be able to offer specifics..

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      The 375 million/yr is the proposed funding level for the next year, which NASA had previously said would ‘stabilise’ the program. NASA may have changed their minds on this. The Casani report mentioned an extra 250 million/yr for an early (‘minimum cost’) launch.

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