Spooks to the rescue

June 4, 2012

Not often I write two posts in one day, but here is an unexpected piece of news. It seems that the US National Reconnaisance Office have given two free telescopes to NASA. Its all explained at this NY Times article. They are as big as HST but have a wider field of view. They were designed for looking down of course.  Apparently there has been a secret study team and their conclusion is that one of these beasts would be perfect WFIRST, which had seemed to be kicked into the long grass.

They don’t exactly have the rest of the money yet or an actual approval … but the WFIRST fans are talking about shooting for 2020 … a year behind Euclid.

Ooooo what fun. Spot of healthy competition.

Turbulence in the gravy waves

April 23, 2012

So the Athena folk are somewhat miffed at being pipped by Juice. (This metaphor doesn’t seem quite right ? Ed.) But what about Horse Number Three ? Aren’t the NGO folk doing a Grand Petition ? Nope. It seems their tactic is a semi-formal complaint about inadeqacies in the process : an email letter direct to Gimenez. I am not sure how widely it has been circulated, but I understand it is stern stuff, bringing up issues of inappropriate revisions of costings and risk factors, and inadequately resolved conflicts of interest. Feel free to comment if you have clear knowledge, but please (a) do not leak things that are confidential, and (b) keep coments about process and not about individuals.

Its not really clear what competition means when a very small number of items is under consideration, and moreoever each item represents one community-segment, each of which ESA wishes to foster and support. Can you really leave it to peer review and some element of chance ? Nobody is both competent and neutral with respect to such huge basic choices. Why not accept that a well meaning Executive just has to  make a plan and stick with it, after taking advice ? To some extent what makes the current situation hard to swallow is the illusion of choice by peer review, rather than its weaknesses.

This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Long standing ESA tradition is that M-class missions are genuine choices but Cornerstones / L-class missions are a slowly emerging plan. Everything gets done; its just a question of when. A year or two back, the plan was clear : we could do three halves, shared with NASA : LAPLACE, LISA, IXO. Then NASA pulled out of all of them. So now we have enough money for one and a half L-class missions instead of three. Athena, NGO, and Juice are all somewhat descoped compared to their parents. For example, ESA was going to do Ganymede and NASA would do Europa. But apparently Europa is the expensive bit because it has a horrible radiation field. So Juice will do a kind of quick day trip to Europa as I understand it, scooting back before the electronics gets fried. Anyhoo, costs are down but we still can’t do three.

We can do the usual ESA trick of slowing things down. Step round the board for a few more subscription rounds, passing GO and collecting 200 pounds each time. However, this gets you less than you think : because of standing army issues, the costs go up too. Plus, we can’t wait for ever. Its time for Cosmic Visions to finish and the next plan to emerge.

Net result : there will be an L2 competition, but no L3 competition. Things could get even tenser … NGO may seem the obvious choice to ESA because they have already invested in LISA Pathfinder, and its just a more radical advance. Thats why I think it has been really important to show that Athena serves a huge community.

WFIRST Cold Wave

February 15, 2012

Saluton Mondo. Awfully sorry about the gap in service. Busy and all that. Anyway.

So here I am in Sunny Pasadena. Last time I was here it was, like, a hundred degrees or something. This time its overcast and cold ! The locals are apologising and wearing double jumpers. But it seems appropriate because I am here for a meeting  about an infra-red astronomy mission, WFIRST . As many of you will know, WFIRST has a weird history, and is a sort of merger of various proposed missions for dark energy (JDEM), supernovae (SNAP), microlensing (err… something), and IR sky survey (NIRSS). Its pretty exciting but … Euclid is scooping some of that science, and JWST  is eating all the money.

Old chum Richard Griffiths (aka Griff), gave his NASA HQ overview the same day as the President’s proposed FY2013 budget was revealed, including the NASA budget. He wore his tin hat. You can read an overview of the impact on science in this Nature News article, but here are the astro headlines :

  • JWST clearly supported : extra $109M this year
  • Planetary science takes the hit : Exo Mars collaboration with ESA looks dead
  • WFIRST explicitly zeroed

What we were told here at the meeting is that WFIRST may or may not be the next flagship, but if it is, the faucet will not turn on until JWST launch, and then take seven years. So that sounds like a 2025 launch at earliest. Which of course gives the gravy wave and X-ray folk time to re-group.

Oh.. and when I say “zeroed” that can still include $4-5M/yr of study money, as now. But thats just short change in NASA-land…

I got temporarily over-excited on page 61, as there is a “Decadal surveys missions” wedge, with 144M in FY2013. However … this means the Earth Sciences Decadal Survey … oh well.

Meanwhile, it seems NSF overall did quite well, but I have heard no news about how astro did inside this… any reader gossip ?

Finally, in case you hadn’t heard, the Spergel report recommends that the US spend $20M on Euclid….

US astronomy crumbling ?

October 25, 2011

Many of us were rather perturbed to receive the latest edition of the NOAO newsletter, NOAO Currents, warning the community that KPNO or even CTIO as well might be forced into closure by the dire state of the NSF budget. They have started a community discussion. UK readers should bear in mind that unlike our situation, the operation and the funding is from two separate bodies (AURA and NSF) so the psycho-dynamics of lobbying is a little different.

NSF is indeed in a tight spot, as described in the talk by Jim Ulvestad at a recent meeting of the NSF A&A advisory committee. The Decadal Survey (aka NWNH) assumed 3% growth but actually NSF astro is taking a 4% cut this year. NSF as a whole is roughly flat cash The OMB is asking all agencies for 5-10% cuts next year. The current top priority is making a success of ALMA; the top priority new start, LSST, probably won’t have the funding faucet turned on until 2015; and whichever is chosen out of TMT and GMT won’t get NSF money until at least 2020. Jim doesn’t say “we will have to trash Kitt Peak” but NOAO ain’t stupid and are getting their groundswell started early.

I heard a rumour of a rumour that NSF are punishing astronomy because their budget cut was caused by the Senate putting JWST back in to the budget. But I don’t think this is correct. The NSF asked for $7.8bn; the House bill gave them NSF $6.9bn; the Senate bill gave them $6.7bn. So they are both suggesting fierce cuts regardless of the JWST thing. Maybe some US reader can explain how the reconciliation happens, but presumably they will end up with 6.8bn or thereabouts.

To fill in the picture, the House bill gave JWST zilch, and the Senate bill gave them $593M this year, with a capped total of $8.7bn. In that Senate bill, total NASA science is 5.1bn – thats Earth Sci 1.76; Planetary 1.50; Astrophysics 0.68; JWST 0.53; Heliophysics 0.62. The astro 680M includes HST at 98.3M, SOFIA at 84M, and NUSTAR at 11.9M. Interestingly, it looks like JWST hasn’t particularly damaged the rest of NASA astrophysics that much. The hit has come in other NASA programs. NASA as a whole is given $17.9bn, half a billion down from last year. So non-science programs are being hit hard.

Meanwhile, other gossip mongerers of my acquaintance are fretting over some of the words in the Senate bill. For example, it exhorts NSF to take a decision this year between TMT and GMT, but includes the words “… to develop that telescope on domestic soil …”. So. telescopes to be sited in Chile, as opposed to Hawaii, need not apply ? Hmm. ”Develop” ain’t the same as “built on”…

Enough of the paranoia I say ! Of course just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

JWST cancellation proposed

July 6, 2011

Breaking news via old chum Suthers on Twitter  stating that JWST is on the brink of cancellation. There is a story at Space News, and a reaction posted by Bill Smith, president of AURA. Suthers wrote a rather prescient post on Skymania back in April. (Before updating I thought this post was new ! Sorry Paul.)

Its all tangled up with Obama versus the Republicans and the US budget deficit cap etc. Obama made a budget request for NASA of almost eighteen and a half billion. But the relevant House Appropriations Committee, for commerce, justice and science, has proposed a draft budget almost 2 billion less, and specifically proposed cutting JWST. The proposed budget gets formally voted on by the committee tomorrow.

Jeez. Who understands the system ? Whats the odds now ?


– Lots of Twitter activity

– Sarah K has also blogged it.

– The House Committee press release is here. If you are too lazy to click through, here is an extract :

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – NASA is funded at $16.8 billion in the bill, which is $1.6 billion below last year’s level and $1.9 billion below the President’s request. This funding includes:

  • $3.65 billion for Space Exploration which is $152 million below last year. This includes funding above the request for NASA to meet Congressionally mandated program deadlines for the newly authorized crew vehicle and launch system.
  • $4.1 billion for Space Operations which is $1.4 billion below last year’s level. The legislation will continue the closeout of the Space Shuttle program for a savings of $1 billion.
  • $4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

National Science Foundation (NSF) – The legislation funds NSF at $6.9 billion, the same as last year’s level and $907 million below the President’s request. Within this funding, NSF’s core research is increased by $43 million to enhance basic research that is critical to innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness.

Another update : post on Nature News blog summarises the situation well. There are several more stages to go, so don’t panic yet. But gird your loins.

Space scariness

April 8, 2011

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.

Scariness continued

November 11, 2010

Apologies for radio silence. Somehow I foolishly agreed to teach two new courses simultaneously without noticing the load would peak about the same time as Astronomy Grants Panel Business, and just before finishing a major EU proposal. AAAGGGHHH.

I suppose the obvious news of the day for your friendly neighbourhood AGP chairman is the outcome of STFC’s Grant Mechanism Review. However, that discussion is well underway on Peter’s blog, so I suggest you check it out there.

Instead, I will alert you to a depressing news article from the New York Times. JWST is one third over budget and at least a year behind schedule. In my previous “scary stories“post, our ESA correspondent Mark MacGuttural-noise stressed that this was not requirements creep as Nature had reported. The new report seems to confirm this. Management cock-up is the theory of the day.

As Mark also said, cancelling JWST at this stage would be a bad idea. We would not get the money for something else in astronomy instead. Instead, we maybe just have to let the over-runs eat about half the clear blue water that the Decadal Survey identified as available for a nice new Explorer programme etc. Talk about rock and hard place.

But could it happen ? Worryingly, the splashing of over-runs maybe increases the likelihood of cancellation, because the sunk costs are now a smaller fraction of the total… about 1/3, similar to the state of SSC when the plug was pulled in 1993.

I guess we shouldn’t be smug in Europe. Our Big Thing is ELT, for which the currrent level of ESO subscription will cover about a third. Ahh, but … then we get Brazil to join, which is a fair bit more, and then we ask everybody to just ever so slightly increase their subscriptions, and then … umm… then… national agencies pay for more stuff inside their own countries, and then… err… good lord, is that the time ?

Time share in TMT anyone ?

GLAST first light

August 22, 2008

OK all you gamma ray fans, the slightly delayed official first light event for GLAST is almost with us.. all systems go on Tuesday the 26th … you can bookmark the streaming video from NASA.

At a coffee time talk a couple of days back Peter Michelson waved a large yellow envelope that he said contained the official first light images, but said that if we saw them he would have to kill us.

The Problem with Blogging at Light Speed

February 3, 2008

February 4th is Across The Universe Day ! But you probably knew this, so why am I bothering ? Saturday morning I finished my toast, went out and bought the Guardian, and found an amusing wee article about NASA beaming the Beatles song Across the Universe through its Deep Space Network in the direction of Polaris. This apparently celebrates the 50th anniversary of NASA and the 40th anniversary of the recording of Abbey Road. Cool, I thought. I can blog about that.

But as soon as I started digging, I found everybody in the blogosphere had beaten me to it – the Bad Astronomer and the Beeb and me ole chum Paul at Skymania News , and Fraser Cain at Universe Today; and its been Dugg of course . Here is the original NASA link. While Googling I found that Chris Lintott, Brian May, and Patrick Moore have a regular New York Times Blog which is also called Across the Universe. Hey, there’s even a movie called Across the Universe

Stuart at the Astronomy Blog must have been too busy doing some astronomy I guess.

Some blogs are “My Diary” by Ordinary Bloke. Some are “Hem. Hem. My Theory” by A.Nutter. Some – many of the astronomy ones – are basically on-line astronomy magazines. They feed off new results and press releases and explain them to a fascinated public. All the blogs I mentioned above do a great job of this. Why should I bother when they do this so well ? Answer : I shouldn’t. If you want to read about it, go read all those other guys ! They are better than me .. and obviously a lot quicker….

Instead I will comment on something that puzzled me, and nobody else seemed to pick up. All the versions of this I have read say that February 4th has been declared as Across the the Universe Day by “Beatles fans across the world”, who are urged to play their own recording of the song, etc etc. Err… says who ? I checked out various Beatles Fan Club websites (like here, here, and here) and can’t see a mention of anything like this. I assume this whole “Beatles Fans Across the World” thing was just made up by NASA and parotted uncritically by all the media outlets and blogs that picked up the press release.

So yeah, its a rock as Chris Lintott says. And this is a NASA stunt. Full stop.