Late Friday afternoon, NASA announced the winners to its most recent competition in the “small explorer” or SMEX programme, which is a chance for principal investigators, often from universities, to offer up their bold new ideas and have NASA pay for their chance to be in charge.
After a year-long competition among six finalists — which had themselves been winnowed down from 32 — NASA picked two. The first, called Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), will use an ultraviolet solar telescope to study the chromosphere, a thin and poorly understood layer of the Sun’s atmosphere just above its surface. It is led by Alan Title, of the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California.
The second, called Gravity and Extreme Magnetism SMEX (GEMS), will measure the polarization of X-rays emanating from black holes and neutron stars and use this to build a picture of the way these objects distort matter and space with their intense gravitational and magnetic fields. It is led by Jean Swank, of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The missions each will receive $105 million, plus the use of a launch vehicle. IRIS could launch by the end of 2012, while both are supposed to launch by 2015.
I’m sure they are stellar proposals, no pun intended, with rock-solid science potential. But I think it’s fair to say that finding another Earth outside our solar system is a far cry more sexy than most heliophysics missions. And among the missing in the final cut was the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a favorite among certain blogs and even our editor here at Nature. It would have found extrasolar Earths that CoRoT and Kepler will miss, and ones close enough to home to be meaningfully followed up by the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope. As Centauri Dreams blog said, “From the PR perspective, TESS was a gold-plated winner.”