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Updated: NASA disbands science teams to make way for European mission

ESA-LMissions260.jpgNASA is disbanding two major US science teams following a bilateral meeting with the European Space Agency, Nature has learned. In a public presentation April 4, Jon Morse of NASA Astrophysics Division said that the International X-ray Observatory Science team and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)’s International Science Team will formally no longer exist and the project offices are closing. The changes will make way for new European-led study teams expected to be named soon that will include missions along similar lines with new budgets, and that will also include a NASA representative, says Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a member of the science definition team for IXO. “We’re being told to continue the dialogue but the ball’s in the Europeans’ court,” says Bregman. NASA is expecting budget cuts and had been unable to promise ESA it could deliver substantial funds for the missions.

The change does not come as a huge surprise to astronomers and planetary scientists following ESA’s decision to move ahead with the selection of an L-class or large mission assuming minimal NASA involvement. The projects competing to be selected for the L-Class include IXO, LISA, which will detect gravitational waves, and a mission to Jupiter’s moons called EJSM-Laplace and a decision is expected next February 2012. The absence of substantial NASA funds will limit the budget to around 1.1 billion euros once contributions from European member states are included. NASA is likely to be a junior partner on these missions, and is preparing to ask the National Research Council to advise on possible roles it could play, several astronomers said today.

Just as NASA withdraws from the L-class, it has been discussing with ESA the possibility of a joint sample return mission to Mars, the BBC reported today. The agencies had previously planned to send two independent but complimentary rovers. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, who chaired the March 7 US planetary sciences decadal survey that recommended Mars sample return mission as the top priority, says he’s happy that the panel’s advice that NASA and ESA work together is being followed. He says it’s too early to say how the science will be affected by combining the two rovers into one. The most likely scenario for Mars sample return is that the mission to dig and package the sample will be independent from a later mission to retrieve it and bring it back to Earth, Squyres says. “It’s by far the best way of doing it because it spreads the costs out over significant period of time without impacting other planetary sciences projects.”


Update April 11: Following this news, NASA was scrambling over the weekend to combat the perception that the LISA and IXO concepts were dead from a US perspective. In a statement to Nature, Jon Morse of NASA’s astrophysics Division said that the agency plans to continue funding LISA and IXO through FY11. “NASA also plans to consult with the community about strategic investments in gravity wave and X-ray astrophysics in future years,” he says.

Neil Cornish, a member of the former LISA International Science Team, says despite appearances things are busy behind the scenes right now. “Expect to see a revamped LISA mission at NASA that includes a study for a NASA led, lower cost mission. Budget constraints will preclude this mission from being implemented this decade, but it will compete strongly for top billing at the next decadal,” he says. On April 8, NASA posted a statement on LISA’s home page at saying that “NASA’s Astrophysics Division plans to continue basic funding for the LISA study team through FY11, assuming not-larger-than-anticipated cuts from Congress. The Division will engage the community about strategic investments in gravitational wave astrophysics and possible solicitations for new concept studies.”

Images: ESA L Class missions

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    Gagarin Miljkovich said:

    That’s bad news for the science and the mankind.

    Why couldn’t we have a international “NASA/ESA”?

    A meteor doesn’t care about our nation’s borders.

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