X-ray astronomy crunch

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.

22 Responses to X-ray astronomy crunch

  1. Regardless of what one thinks about this particular case, is a petition a good idea? If it has no effect then why sign it? But if it does, then that could mean that whoever can organize the most signatures via the blogosphere gets what he wants. Is that the way decisions should be made? What next, each mission has a Facebook page and we count the “like”s?

  2. Tony says:

    As a science fiction nut, I have to say I’d rather see our limited resources spent within our solar system than on stars/galaxies far away.

  3. Martin says:

    Phillip: I think the point is to demonstrate the very large potential user community of Athena (compared to the other two choices on offer) rather than to turn the selection process into a TV talent show.

    I signed quite early on, though I don’t think it’ll do any good at all…

  4. MikeW says:

    Andy: EXIST is/was hardly a modest small mission, at least in its most recent incarnation.

    Saying that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall could be seen as lazy thinking. IXO was reformulated as Athena, a project that does fit the L-class budget whilst also providing pretty impressive performance.

  5. MikeW says:

    … and we certainly haven’t given up on Lobster

  6. Clive Page says:

    I agree that “funding wall” isn’t quite the right term here. It seems to be a quantisation effect, and it’s affecting all big sciences like astronomy and particle physics. As time goes on we need ever more expensive instruments to push back the frontiers, so the funding quantum gets ever bigger, but the total funds expand slowly if at all. We’ve now reached the point where whole branches of astronomy, like X-ray will either get one big telescope funded, or have to make do with almost nothing for a decade or so. I don’t see an easy solution to this, and it’s especially hard for wavebands where the work has to be done in space, as space missions are intrinsically expensive.

    • andyxl says:

      You mean exactly the same thing I did. I think I stole the term “funding wall” from the talk Martin Elvis have at the Leicester-50 meeting …

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      As well as cost, another reason this is a more acute issue for X-ray astronomy than for, say, groundbased OIR astronomy, is that the characteristic timescale between missions can now exceed the mission lifetime. In groundbased astronomy, if we only get one new large telescope every 20 years, we can live with it because the useful scientific lifetime of the telescope exceeds that period, so science will continue to march without interruption, new generations of astronomers can be trained, etc. In addition, the instrument builders can keep coming up with new instruments to bolt on the back in the meantime, ensuring similar career continuity on the hardware side.

    • Richard Mushotzky says:

      I do not agree that one must have very expensive large new telescopes to make significant progress. Technology (e.g. new instruments) can often make possible in small packages what used to require very large missions. In addition its not clear that every significant step forward has to be orders of magnitude, this is clearly seen in the Japanese program.
      If Athena had been proposed instead of IXO, I believe it would have been selected by the US Astro2010- they were looking for less expensive highly productive missions; unfortunately none were proposed. There is indeed a funding wall around $1.5B- the only missions that have broken it are HST and JWST, it seems foolish to keep hitting ones head against it.
      X-ray astronomy has the huge benefit of new technologies for mirrors and detectors that improves the phase space for spectroscopy by orders of magnitude- we have to just put it in the right package.

  7. Nick Seymour says:

    In support of the idea that you don’t need a large 1.5B project to break new ground, just compare the relative abilities of IRAS, ISO, Spizter, and Akari. These telescopes all had 0.6-0.85m mirrors, but each was a big leap forward in different parts of parameter space. Launching smaller telescopes with better back ends seems to be the space-based equivalent to producing new instrumentation. Haven’t the X-ray community got NuSTAR and eROSITA to look forward to in the next few years which essentially do just this?

  8. andyxl says:

    Nick – the first breakthrough in a new region of parameter space can be of modest size, and gets the low hanging fruit. The next generation has to be bigger or it only repeats. So you don’t just get more science by multiple small things. You get new science when you go into unexplored territory.

    Point B : depends what you mean by “X-ray community”. Your list will make Germans and some Americans happy… Also they are imminent. Whats being built now, as opposed to planned now ?

  9. JoernW says:

    Nick, NuSTAR and eROSITA will not be enough to sustain the field. Both are small missions that are designed for rather precisely formulated scientific questions, but they are not the multi-purpose observatories like XMM and Chandra today.

    For eROSITA, while it will detect 2 Million AGN and 100000 galaxy clusters, it won’t be able to do much diagnostics on them. That’s not what it was designed for – its primary science goal is to do cluster cosmology, where mainly the number of clusters enters. For all that matters, so is LOFT. While it will be doing a great job on Galactic sources, with its extremely high count rate capability, from its design it won’t be good for fainter extragalactic sources (it would have been complementary to Athena in this respect, but it can’t replace it – no M-class mission would be able to do so). The same is true for Lobster as well (or Brazil’s MIRAX).

    These are all PI-type instruments, and in this sense comparable to Juice, i.e., instruments are built by a consortium, and most people who will be working on the analysis of the data will be members of the consortium as well (LOFT will be an observatory).

    With the large collecting area together with the better CCDs than those on XMM and Chandra and with the imaging calorimeter, with Athena we would have had an instrument that would have been compatible in performance with that of the planned ground based instruments. So if Athena doesn’t fly, this does not only hurt X-ray astronomy, but really all of astronomy since the X-ray astronomical diagnostics that we have today just won’t be available for all the objects that will be studied in the 2020s in other wavebands. So, as the BBC article correctly says, there will be an impact for SKA, LSST, ALMA, JWST, or CTA, because a diagnostically important part of the electromagnetic spectrum won’t be covered (one can argue that even NGO needs an X-ray mission as well…). I believe that this is the reason why it was so easy to get 1300 signatures on the Athena petition- It was the only of the three missions that would have had a real scientific impact outside of the community that built it, because of it being an observatory.

    I think the SSAC has realized all this and, if one takes the rumors that have reached me from several people serious, that is also why the selection between Juice and Athena was in the end with a majority of one vote (no, it was *not* unanimous), after SSAC agreed that NGO could be done the earliest in 2024.

  10. martinstuartelvis says:

    I also stole the term “Funding Wall”, Andy, from a letter to the October 2005 AAS Newsletter by Peter V. Foukal. He said:

    “Until the early 1990s, particle physics was the flagship of the physical sciences. Facilities continued to grow, and it seemed that there was no limit. But Congress’ cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) after massive cost overruns, crippled morale in the field. Now, experimental particle physics is in steep decline in the US. Could a similar flame-out happen to astronomy?”

    I consider that prescient.

    What we are seeing is the effect of an exponential, like the grains of rice on the chess board tale.

    Take UV astronomy: Copernicus was tiny and showed that the field existing; IUE was an order of magnitude more capable [WAG] and significantly more expensive. Hubble blew IUE out of the water, but at a cost that had a major effect on other missions (AXAF – now Chandra – for example). As we demand order-of-magnitude leaps in performance, for good scientific reasons, we inevitably face huge cost growth. That runs up against what society is prepared to pay for. It feels like hitting a wall.

    Andy pointed me to a book by John Ziman “Prometheus Bound: Science in a dynamic steady state” that points out – a bit boringly and verbosely – that all fields of science, and science as a whole, must hit a limit at some point. [You UK types will like it as it is very UK-centric.]

    The only way is to keep find ways of doing science that fit the budget. Fields that do that will thrive. The rest will stop.

    My current attempt is to bring down the cost of space missions by pushing commercialization of space. A bit long term that, I admit.

    • andyxl says:

      Martin – one reaction is to do smaller cheaper niche things. However another reaction might be that if you can only have one mission, it had better be a general purpose observatory. This just works where the field is “X-ray astronomy”, but breaks down when the field is “Astronomy”.

      My other favourite Ziman book is “Reliable Knowledge : an exploration of the grounds for belief in Science”

  11. Tony says:

    Maybe you should give Kickstarter a try, or at least learn some marketing lessons. If a watch can get $6m+ when only asking for $100k (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/597507018/pebble-e-paper-watch-for-iphone-and-android?ref=live) …

  12. […]  is too big to be built.  We might have already seen X-ray astronomy bubble burst in this way. To quote my learned friend Andy Lawrence: Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets […]

  13. […] uppföljare till succételeskop som ROSAT, XMM och Chandra, men istället deppar nu röntgenfolket (läs Andy Lawrence blogginlägg om saken). Hoppet står till mycket mindre projekt, som NuSTAR, tyska eROSITA och svenska PoGOLite som ska […]

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