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NRO Gifts NASA Two Leftover Space Telescopes, Euclid to Cost NASA $40-50 Million, GEMS Not Confirmed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2012
Updated: 04-Jun-2012 09:55 PM

NASA revealed today that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) gave it two leftover space telescopes.  NASA is looking at using one of them and must determine how much it would cost to build, launch and operate a spacecraft that would incorporate it.  NASA also must decide what other instruments may be needed to achieve the scientific objectives in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics.

NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz told a meeting of the NRC's Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) about the gift this morning.   His short talk was followed by a more lengthy explanation by Dr. Alan Dressler of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution.  Dressler chaired the panel of the NRC's 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH), that recommended a mission called the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as the top priority for a large space mission for the next decade of space-based astrophysics research. 

WFIRST is a multi-purpose telescope that would study dark energy, search for exoplanets, and survey the universe in the infrared wavelengths.  Budget constraints exacerbated by significant overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have pushed WFIRST well into the 2020s.  

NRO builds and operates the nation's spy satellites.  NASA officials said today that NRO contacted the agency over a year ago to see if NASA wanted the two 2.4 meter diameter space-qualified telescopes because they were no longer needed.  NASA said yes and the telescopes are now its property.  They have been declassified, but are still subject to export control restrictions.  Although NASA inherited two telescopes, it is only talking about using one, at least for now.   Hertz said they are calling it the NEW mission -- NWNH Enabling Wide-field -- with the idea that it could enable the science envisioned in New Worlds, New Horizons for a wide-field infrared telescope.

Dressler was one of a small group of scientists asked by NASA to review the potential of achieving the science objectives of WFIRST by using one of the NRO telescopes.  The study group also included CAA co-chair David Spergel.  WFIRST was designed as a 1.5 meter diameter telescope, while the NRO telescopes are 2.4 meters.  Dressler said that NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory have known about the telescopes for some time and several mission designs have emerged.   For him, the starting point would be to use the mirrors as they currently exist, although he expressed a strong preference for adding a coronograph to the mission.  He said that his preliminary answer is that an NRO-based mission could accomplish the WFIRST science goals perhaps better than WFIRST itself.   While stressing that more work is needed, he expressed his personal view that "the potential exists to have greater capability for the WFIRST science, enable additional scientific opportunities, match or reduce cost, and improve schedule, and that this possibility should be pursued as vigorously as possible by the astronomical community."

The NRC conducts Decadal Surveys for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines.  Performed every 10 years, they look out to the next 10 years (hence the term decadal) to determine the most compelling scientific questions and what missions are needed to answer them within a budget envelope NASA provides.  Because they represent a consensus of the relevant discipline, they are closely followed by NASA and highly respected by Congress.  The NRC has standing committees that keep track of what NASA (and other agencies as appropriate) are doing to achieve the Decadal Survey's recommendations.   CAA oversees compliance with the astronomy and astrophysics Decadal Survey, which also includes recommendations to the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The CAA's response to the news was rather muted.  The reaction was surprisingly flat for a community that received a fairly valuable gift.  At a media teleconference later in the day, NASA's Michael Moore, deputy astrophysics division director, estimated that about $250 million in mission costs could be avoided by using one of the NRO telescopes.  He added that the telescopes cost about $75,000-$100,000 to store at the manfacturer's (ITT Excelis) facilities in Rochester, NY.   In response to a question at the media teleconference, Hertz said he thought CAA members were "excited at the possibilities," while Dressler acknowledged that some people "need to have a lot more time" to consider the situation.  This is a "sharp right turn," he added, compared to what was recommended in NWNH.

Some CAA members wanted to know if NASA should now reconsider its participation in the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Euclid mission, apparently on the assumption that with the gift of the telescopes NASA might be able to move out more quickly with a WFIRST-like mission.  Euclid will study dark energy, which also is one of the goals of the WFIRST mission.   Hertz said that NASA was already committed to its participation in Euclid.   In fact, he informed the committee that the cost of NASA's contribution to Euclid will be $40-50 million instead of $20 million as recommended by another NRC committee.   NASA agreed to provide near infra-red detectors for Euclid, but ESA convinced NASA that it also needed the associated electronics, which increased the cost to NASA.

Hertz also emphasized repeatedly that NASA currently does not have the money to build, launch and operate a spacecraft that would use one of the NRO telescopes.   The telescope may be free, but NASA must pay for everything else.  Launch of JWST is an agency priority and until that happens, the budget for astrophysics at NASA is highly constrained.   Hertz also stressed that obtaining permission from the White House and Congress for NASA to begin another large mission like JWST should not be taken for granted.   Until NASA demonstrates that it can complete JWST on its new baseline budget and schedule, he does not expect policy-makers to have confidence that NASA can perform on time and cost.

Separately, Hertz told the committee that NASA had "not confirmed" the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism (GEMS) Small Explorer mission because it experienced unacceptable cost increases during its early formulation stage.  NASA missions must pass through certain "gates," one of which is a confirmation review.  GEMS did not pass that gate.  NASA will reallocate those funds for other Explorer missions.

Editor's Note:  Although the announcement about the NRO telescopes came as a surprise to many, at least two news outlets - the New York Times and Washington Post -- clearly were told about it earlier.   Each published stories including quotes from people who were not at the CAA meeting very shortly after Hertz spoke.  NASA also did not inform all journalists about the media teleconference. thanks NASAWatch for publicizing it.

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