X-ray astronomy crunch

April 19, 2012

I got an email this morning from old chum Paul Nandra. You may not be surprised because about eight squillion of you got the same email. In fact I also got it yesterday from Andy Fabian, and also via the Euclid mailing list (followed by a knuckle rapping from Yannick reminding us that the Euclid mailing list is for Euclid business…)

The email asked us to sign the Athena petition set up by Paul, who these days is King of German X-ray Astronomy, following Gunther’s retirement to Hawaii. Athena is a giant X-ray telescope, and has been on the shortlist of three for the L-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme for some years. It descends from IXO, but our US chums pulled the plug on that. The other two rivals are NGO (which used to be LISA, and is  gravy wave thing) and JUICE (which used to be Laplace, and is a Jupiter moon thing). As explained in this BBC article, the tortuous decision process is almost done : the Space Science Advisory Committee has recommended JUICE. The fat lady in this case is the Science Policy Committee, so there is still a chance the decision could be reversed. Hence the petition.

The response has been pretty impressive – over 1100 signatures already. I think people see this as an issue for astrophysics, as well as specifically for X-ray astronomy. However, it seems a pretty faint hope. It just ain’t the way ESA thinks; Gaia is about to get launched; and Euclid and Solar Orbiter have just been selected as M-class missions. ESA-think is that it must be the turn of planetary astronomy. Furthermore SPICA (joint IR mission with JAXA) is underway, and LOFT (another X-ray concept) is still in contention for another M-class mission.

Still… the point is that Athena is the Big Hope for X-ray astronomy for many many years to come. Not running with it feels like closing down X-ray astronomy. So at minimum, it seems the right thing to do to register one’s distress.

Personally I would rather go for a smaller monitoring / transient projects like Lobster or EXIST but they seem to have failed to get a foot in the door too.

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.