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NASA Presses Case for Euclid with Space Astronomers

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA continued to woo the U.S. space astronomy community today hoping that it will agree to NASA's proposal to increase its potential participation in the European Space Agency's (ESA's) proposed Euclid mission from 20 percent to 33 percent. The second day of discussion at the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Astrophysics Subcommittee meeting reiterated many of the points from yesterday, but participants were joined today by NASA Associate Administrator for Science Ed Weiler. They also were briefed by phone by ESA's Fabio Favata on ESA's process for choosing science missions and where they stand today. Euclid is one of three ESA missions vying for two spots in ESA's science program; a decision will be made next summer.

NAC astrophysics subcommittee members are chosen by NASA to represent the broad space-based astrophysics community and they expressed a wide range of views about the wisdom of U.S. participation in Euclid and at what level. Euclid would search for answers to the mystery of dark energy, an unknown force accelerating the expansion of the universe. The recent U.S. National Research Council Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, Astro2010, identified a multidisciplinary project, WFIRST, as its top priority for space missions. WFIRST also would study dark energy, along with searching for earth-like planets (exoplanets) and performing an infrared sky survey. Astro2010's top priority for ground-based astronomy, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also would search for dark energy.

Many subcommittee members wondered why NASA would support two space missions that they view as having very similar science objectives when resources are so constrained. ESA-NASA discussions prior to the release of Astro2010 centered on NASA participating in Euclid at a 20 percent level, but more recently the two agencies have been discussing a 33 percent U.S. share. That would cost NASA $260 million over 10 years according to Dr. Weiler.

He and Jon Morse, Director of NASA's Astrophysics Division, tried to downplay that amount, saying it was only $26 million per year, but subcommittee members clearly viewed it as a threat to funding for technology development or other activities. Several subcommittee members were inclined to limit NASA participation in Euclid to a minimum level. Others wanted more NASA participation, perhaps even a merging of Euclid and WFIRST with the two agencies sharing the costs on a roughly equal basis.

Dr. Weiler reminded them of the history of NASA-ESA discussions about working together on a dark energy mission. He said that two years ago, the agencies agreed to cooperate on a program where the United States would have had the lead in the program, but the plan was scuttled because "some people in the community didn't like that." At the time, NASA was working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) and his reference may have been to members of that community, although he was not specific.

In any case, he emphasized that ESA now is well along in its planning for Euclid and does not want to make any major changes - like adding new requirements - lest the mission lose its place in the ongoing selection. Increasing the U.S. share to 50 percent was suggested to ESA recently, he said, and rejected. He spelled out two options for the space astronomy community: 33 percent participation in Euclid, which would put four U.S. scientists on the program's science definition team and give them access to data about dark energy in 2018 when the probe is launched; or no participation in Euclid and U.S. scientists would have to wait until 2022, the notional launch date for WFIRST under NASA's budget assumptions, for dark energy data. After spirited repartee with committee members, he added a third option, to keep U.S. participation at the 20 percent level.

Subcommittee discussions are continuing, but they have little time to reach agreement on what to recommend to their parent NAC Science Committee, which meets on September 28. Dr. Weiler and Dr. Morse told them they need an answer by the end of this month. Dr. Weiler also noted that the astronomy community is not the only voice that needs to be heard. Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy all have a say, he stressed.

With only about $2 billion available for new missions in NASA's astrophysics budget over the next decade, $260 million is a sizeable investment. Dr. Morse dangled the prospect of ESA contributing a like amount to WFIRST if an agreement can be reached, but that would not happen until at least next year so there are no guarantees. In fact, there is no guarantee that Euclid will even be picked by ESA, as the NASA officials repeatedly pointed out.

Astro2010 just set priorities for astronomy and astrophysics research for the next decade, but this issue of increasing U.S. participation in Euclid arose after its report was complete. Astro2010 chair Roger Blandford declined to hypothesize on what the Decadal Survey committee might have thought about increasing participation in Euclid, reminding the group that the study is completed and in any case only sets priorities. Implementation is NASA's responsibility, he said. Yesterday he reminded the subcommittee about exactly what Astro2010 said about Euclid in the context of its WFIRST recommendation: "Collaboration on a combined mission with the United States playing a leading role should be considered so long as the committee's recommended science program is preserved and overall cost savings result."

U.S. leadership in dark energy research appears to be one of the factors in decisions about how to move forward. Although WFIRST is indeed the acronym for Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, it could also be a play on words. The search for dark energy is in part a quest to measure a dark energy parameter designated "w." WFIRST might then be taken to mean that U.S. astronomers want to be sure they are the first to determine the value of w. (An excellent discussion of dark energy and w can be found in a 2007 NRC report NASA's Beyond Einstein Program: An Architecture for Implementation.)

Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated when the NAC Science Committee is scheduled to meet. Its next meeting is September 28, not next week. It will meet by telephone and WebEx; see our calendar on the right menu for a link to the Federal Register notice about the meeting. Also, the NRC Beyond Einstein report was published in 2007 not 2008 -- how time flies!

Dark Energy Top Priority, But Astronomers Ask if Both US and European Space Missions Are Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Discovering the nature of dark energy is the top scientific priority for astronomy and astrophysics as indicated in the National Research Council's Astro2010 Decadal Survey released last month. It set both a space mission, the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and a ground-based telescope, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), as the top priorities for space- and ground-based astronomy respectively. Both would search for answers about dark energy, a mysterious force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerated rate. At the same time, the European Space Agency (ESA) is set to decide next summer on whether its dark energy probe, Euclid, will get the nod for one of its upcoming space missions.

Today, members of the NASA Advisory Council's Astrophysics Subcommittee heard from Astro2010 chairman Roger Blandford, as well as from NASA Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse and Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Jason Rhodes about the space-based dark energy missions and raised questions about potential overlap between them. The Astrophysics Subcommittee reports to NAC's Science Committee, which in turn makes recommendations to NAC and the NASA Administrator.

Subcommittee members asked penetrating questions about why WFIRST and Euclid could not be combined, with 50-50 participation by each side. Dr. Morse told the subcommittee that current ESA-NASA discussions envision NASA as a one-third contributor to the Euclid mission if ESA proceeds with it. However, he stressed that while top level descriptions of WFIRST and Euclid indicate the two have similar goals in dark energy studies, a more detailed understanding of the instruments might show significant differences in the approaches being taken. Dr. Blandford also emphasized that dark energy is only one of three scientific objectives for WFIRST. The other two are looking for Earth-like planets (exoplanets) and an infrared sky survey, neither of which would be addressed by Euclid.

In a cost constrained environment made all that more difficult due to cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), subcommittee members clearly were looking for ways to address the highest priority scientific questions in the most cost-effective manner. JWST and WFIRST are both "flagship" missions within the purview of the NASA Astrophysics Division. Dr. Morse emphasized repeatedly that flagship missions must wait their turn and WFIRST cannot proceed until JWST is launched.

The current launch date for JWST is 2014, but Dr. Eric Smith of NASA's Astrophysics Division briefed the subcommittee on JWST and intimated that the date is likely to slip. The program is currently scheduled to go before an agency Program Management Council (PMC) at the end of November where a decision on its schedule is expected. Repeated cost overruns and schedule slips have led to a number of JWST program reviews, including one demanded by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.

A strong supporter of NASA and especially its Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, which manages JWST, Sen. Mikulski nonetheless became concerned about additional problems with JWST identified during its mission Critical Design Review (CDR) earlier this year. She wrote a sharp letter to NASA in June telling the agency to create an independent panel to look at several issues including the root causes of JWST's problems. That review is due to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden next month. Dr. Smith was unable to answer most of the questions posed by subcommittee members about JWST pending completion of that review and the agency PMC.

The subcommittee meeting continues tomorrow.

Senate to Take up DOD Authorization Next Week; Add Immigration Reform

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Despite earlier pessimism about the chances of the Senate bringing up the Department of Defense (DOD) authorization bill (S. 3454), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has decided not only to take it to the floor, but to add immigration reform.

An attempt to reach unanimous consent to bring the bill to the floor failed in early August when Senator John McCain (R-AZ), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, objected because it potentially would repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Last week, Congress Daily called the chances of the Senate passing the bill "murky."

Nonetheless, Sen. Reid indicated early this week that he would try to bring up the bill for debate and surprised many by announcing that he planned to tack an immigration reform bill, the DREAM Act, on to the DOD bill. Today's Congress Daily (subscription required) says that Republicans oppose the idea because immigration is not germane to national defense, but Sen. Reid reportedly said that it is germane because the DREAM Act could affect military recruitment by allowing young adult illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors to become citizens.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on Tuesday on whether to proceed with debate on the bill.

Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Recommends Zero Funding for NPOESS, $50 million for DWSS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Senate defense appropriations subcommittee (SAC-D) marked up the FY2011 defense appropriations bill today recommending zero funding for DOD's portion of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) that the White House wants restructured after years of cost overruns and schedule slips. It approved $50 million for DOD's successor program, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS).

NPOESS was designed to merge the separate military and civil weather satellite systems of DOD and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce). NASA was involved in a technical capacity. An independent assessment of the NPOESS program led by former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young raised warning flags about the program and in February the White House decided to break the program apart so that each agency had its own system once more.

NOAA renamed its portion the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and is proceeding with procuring its first satellite through NASA. DOD renamed its portion the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). In its FY2011 budget request, DOD asked for $325 million for its part of the restructured program although it provided few details on its plan, for example whether it would retain the satellite "bus" design developed through Northrop Grumman, the NPOESS prime contractor.

SAC-D zeroed that request while providing $50 million for DWSS. Unlike NOAA, which has launched the last of its legacy polar-orbiting weather satellites and thus is anxious to launch the first JPSS in 2014, DOD has two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites awaiting launch, so the need to decide on the replacement version is less urgent.

The only other space program mentioned in the committee's press release is Operationally Responsive Space, for which $40 million was added.

New Mexico's Spaceport America Looking for Deputy Director

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

For anyone interested in working in commercial spaceflight in New Mexico, see this press release.

AIAA Seminar on Space and the Biological Economy on the Hill Sept. 16

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) will hold a seminar on "Space and the Biological Economy -- Driving the Lift" on Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:00 pm in room 2325 Rayburn House Office Building. The event is free and open to the public. The topic is how space exploration enhances the U.S. "biological economy" and what advances in telemedicine mean to the country's long-term economic and physical health as well as to the future of space exploration.

Space Entrepreneurship Forum Tomorrow on the Hill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is spreading the word today about a Space Entrepreneurship Forum tomorrow (September 15) that will start at 3:00 pm in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. A reception will follow at 5:00 pm in 122 Cannon House Office Building. Speakers include George Nield, current head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation; Patti Grace Smith, his predecessor and now a member of the Board of the Space Foundation;, Mike Beavin of the Department of Commerce; John Gedmark of the Federaltion; and George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic (and former chief of staff to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden). For more information, see the Federation's website.

Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Markup is Tomorrow (Tuesday); Full Committee on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The Senate defense appropriations subcommittee will mark up the FY2011 DOD appropriations bill tomorrow, Tuesday, September 14 at 10:30 am in 192 Dirksen Senate Office Building. Full committee markup of that bill and three others is scheduled for Thursday at 2:00 pm in 106 Dirksen. Both meetings were announced by the committee today.

UPDATE 2: Events of Interest: Week of September 13-17, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: This is updated to add the dates and times for Senate appropriations subcommittee and full commitee markup of the defense appropriations bill (on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.) A second update added seminars on Wednesday and Thursday.

The following events may of interest in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.

During The Week

The House and Senate return from their summer break this week with a full plate of space issues awaiting them. The only legislative action expected this week, however, is the potential markup of the DOD appropriations bill by the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that Congress Daily (subscription required) reports could happen on Thursday.

Monday-Tuesday, September 13-14

  • NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Space Operations Committee, Johnson Space Center, TX
    • September 13, 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm local time
    • September 14. 8:00 am - 12:00 pm local time (joint with the NAC Commercial Space Committee

Tuesday, September 14

Tuesday-Thursday, September 14-16

Wednesday, September 15

Thursday, September 16

Thursday-Friday, September 16-17

  • NAC Astrophysics Subcommittee (of the NAC Science Committee), NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
    • September 16, 8:30 am - 5:00 pm EDT, Room 3H46
    • September 17, 8:30 am - 3:00 pm EDT, Room 5H45

Friday, September 17

  • FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), via teleconference, 11:00 am EDT

International Cooperation is Good, But China Presents Challenges, Conference Participants Conclude

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 12-Sep-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

During the "Space Day" part of the 3rd Annual Washington, D.C. Space and Cyber Conference of the University of Nebraska's College of Law, participants considered the implications of the Obama Administration's National Space Policy and many pointed to its emphasis on international cooperation.

Speaking at the Military Space Panel, Deborah Plunkett of the Air Force's Office of the General Counsel characterized space situational awareness (SSA) as "the most legally ripe area of cooperation." Greater cooperation in SSA -- wherein satellite operators would have more knowledge of where other satellites and pieces of debris are located in order to avoid collisions -- will have to address a number of challenges, including respecting "historic agreements" on data protection, she said.

Bruce MacDonald, who served as Senior Director of the Congressional Commission on Strategic Posture of the United States, agreed that SSA is a viable area of cooperation. MacDonald, who lauded the inclusion of arms control in the National Space Policy as a "good change," linked SSA with deterrence, which is, in his view, the appropriate goal of the United States in space: "the more countries know they are [being] observed, the more cautious they'll be." Plunkett added that the accountability derived from attribution for anti-satellite (ASAT) attacks or other debris-causing behavior "may impact what people do in space."

Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, described that assumption as "interesting," and cautioned that increased SSA or cooperation in that area may not be so easy with actors like China and may not aid deterrence. What were the lessons for China after the 2007 ASAT test, he asked rhetorically. Instead of suffering from this incident, Cheng explained, China learned that there are no consequences to conducting such tests. When considering China, which he described as "a genuine space power", he asked if knowing more about the behavior of other actors in space would be deterrence or, considering the "asymmetry of interests" between China and the United States, might serve the opposite role.

With major challenges in U.S.-China relations, space cooperation with China - which was not ruled out as a possibility in the new policy - still may be some time off. When asked about cooperating with China in human spaceflight missions, the Deputy Administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, who delivered the afternoon's keynote speech, joked "I'm so sorry, that's all the time we have." She could only add that just like the inclusion of Russia in the International Space Station, "human spaceflight cooperation will not be a NASA decision."

Her response echoed Cheng's earlier comments that "whether we can cooperate in space [with China] depends on whether we can cooperate on the ground" and that "cooperation needs to start with baby steps." The first challenge may prove to be the United States' own understanding of Chinese activities and motivations, what Cheng described as its "opacity." Looking to "problems on the horizon," MacDonald agreed with this description and said that "China is our biggest concern in space...that China will continue to be opaque." The hope is, he argued, that by showing China that such a stance is counterproductive, it will become "less opaque, more least translucent."

Events of Interest  

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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