May 21, 2024

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NASA's budget woes could destroy the $2 billion Chandra space telescope

NASA spent $2.2 billion to build and launch the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999, and it has performed brilliantly, examining deep space, black holes, galaxy clusters and the remains of exploded stars. It sees things that other space telescopes can't, because it literally has X-ray vision.

It is too He suffers from some aging problems. Without careful planning, it can overheat, apparently because the telescope's reflective insulation is no longer as bright as it used to be. This is just an educated guess, as it has been orbiting Earth for 25 years, and no one has taken a close look at it, let alone touched it with human hands. But Chandra remains a scientific workhorse, offering views of the universe that can't be obtained any other way.

Chandra's future, unfortunately for the astronomers who love him, is bleak. If Congress approves the Biden administration's 2025 budget request for NASA's science missions, They sayChandra's mission will effectively be terminated.

The uncertain status of the aging telescope is part of a severe budget problem at NASA's Science Mission Directorate. There isn't nearly enough money for all the planetary probes, Mars rovers and space telescopes already built or on the drawing board. Officials have made it clear to everyone that additional funds are unlikely to be obtained To magically descend from the sky.

Taxpayers provide resources, including about $7.5 billion annually for NASA's science missions. But budgets have not been able to keep up with scientific ambitions, including expensive attempts to recover samples from Mars.

It is also possible that NASA's strategic vision will be influenced by competition from abroad. China and other countries are launching spaceships left and right. China could put astronauts on the moon within a few years. There is talk in the national military and security communities about “Space Race 2.0,” and about space as a domain for waging war.

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In times of tight budgets, there are winners and losers. Chandra may be just one of several missions in the latter category.

NASA isn't saying it's killing the Chandra mission. But the language used in NASA's March 11 budget request did not sound promising: “The reduction at Chandra will begin an orderly reduction of the mission to minimum operations.”

The telescope was funded at just under $70 million annually, but the fiscal 2025 budget request reduces that amount to $41 million. Then to $26.6 million the following year, decreasing to $5 million in fiscal year 2029.

“We had to make some difficult choices in order to maintain a balanced portfolio across the Science Mission Directorate,” said Nicola “Nicky” Fox, NASA's senior science director. “Chandra is very, very valuable…but unfortunately, it's an old spacecraft.”

Flat budgets versus lofty ambitions

Last spring, after a fierce budget battle on Capitol Hill, President Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which raised the federal debt ceiling but imposed limits on federal spending. In most parts of government, agencies are dealing with flat budgets, at best, even as inflation makes everything more expensive.

Casey Dreyer, head of space policy at the Planetary Society, wrote in an article The last column Even with a 2% increase in the overall NASA budget in the White House's 2025 request, it still represents a $2 billion loss in purchasing power since 2020 due to inflation.

Through the Artemis program, the United States is fully committed to sending astronauts to the moon again. The Artemis mission involves lunar science. But the bulk of the dollars go to rockets, spaceships, orbital refueling stations, lunar landers, and the complexities of keeping humans alive in a place that lacks the comforts of home, such as air.

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Budget Reality Check: Human spaceflight would win any internal wrestling match over agency dollars.

Then there is the return of the Mars sample. It is NASA's most ambitious and expensive planetary science program. The project aims to transfer pieces of Martian soil to Earth for laboratory research, which is a priority for the scientific community, which believes that the Red Planet, in its warmer and more humid youth, was home to life. The Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in 2021, has already extracted and stored samples.

But getting them to Earth won't be easy or cheap. An independent review board said last year that the mission was on track to be over budget and would fail to meet the launch schedule. Auditors estimated that returning the sample would cost between $8.4 billion and $10.9 billion over the life of the mission.

NASA responded by creating a team to review the mission's architecture and schedule. For months, the return of the Mars sample has remained in limbo, but this difficult period may be coming to an end: On Monday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Fox will hold a conference call with reporters to announce the results of a review of the mission, with NASA's City Council. to follow.

Meanwhile, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the mission, has laid off about 8% of its workforce.

Throughout the scientific community, people are championing their missions, meeting with lawmakers on the Hill, trying to explain why research that might seem esoteric to the general public is worth supporting.

There are some difficult conversations within the scientific community about which tasks are worth investing in time with limited resources. More expensive “major” tasks often threaten to eat up the lunch of smaller tasks. Although the Webb Telescope was a huge success, it cost about $10 billion and had a memorable sign: “The telescope that ate astronomy“.

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As an X-ray telescope, Chandra isn't as versatile as the Hubble or Webb space telescopes when it comes to producing poster-worthy images, so it doesn't have the celebrity status of those observatories. But she has amassed a long list of discoveries, some of them inland Cooperation with telescopes Which are observed at different wavelengths. In 2015, Chandra observations captured a black hole tearing apart a star. In November, Chandra's observations were key to the discovery of a supermassive black hole in a galaxy 13 billion light-years away, said to be the oldest and most distant black hole of its kind. Watched it so far.

If Chandra is reduced to minimal operations, about 80 people are expected to lose their jobs.

“I started working on Chandra right after I graduated in 1988,” says Pat Slane, 68, director of the Chandra X-Ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It's been my entire career.”

“We just received proposals last week for Chandra Notes next year, and we were oversubscribed by a factor of five,” Slan said. “We will prove that it is still a habitable observatory.”

Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, is among the scientists advocating for Chandra's survival. He said the telescope's demise would not end X-ray astronomy, but the United States would lose its position as a leader in the field.

“I encourage scientists around the world. I don't care what science they carry,” Tremblay said. “But it is true that the United States will give up its leadership in cosmic discoveries.”