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US astronomers endorse NASA work on European dark energy mission

EuclidNASA has the blessing of a committee of US astronomers to become a small-percentage partner in Euclid, a European Space Agency (ESA) mission to study dark energy.

The National Academies issued a short report today endorsing a deal where $20 million from NASA would buy access to Euclid data for US astronomers.

NASA has been trying to find a way to study dark energy — the anti-gravitational stuff that’s accelerating the expansion of the Universe — with a small space telescope for years. Initially that was to be JDEM, a joint mission with the US Department of Energy that was also to have ESA involvement. But that ménage-à-trois fell apart: the DOE withdrew its support while ESA and NASA pushed ahead on independent proposals, Euclid, and WFIRST, respectively.

But because the James Webb Space Telescope is hogging the money in NASA’s astrophysics division, Euclid will fly before WFIRST — if WFIRST flies at all. And NASA didn’t want to get left behind.

The $20 million contribution is likely to come in the form of infrared detectors. That contribution gets US representation on the science team, and also gets about 20 scientists early access to Euclid data, says David Spergel of Princeton University in New Jersey, who chaired the Academy report. For a contribution of just a few percent of the overall mission costs, NASA would be getting something like 10% of the control and access to data, Spergel says. “It’s a good deal,” he says.

Why was NASA tiptoeing around such an apparent no-brainer? Because NASA had also tried to be a 20% partner in Euclid — and the US astronomy community rose up in protest, in the form of another Academy report, which in December 2010 said that such a large partnership violated the recommendations of the astronomy decadal survey and might damage WFIRST’s chances. “We still think it’s essential to move forward with WFIRST,” says Spergel. Euclid could launch as soon as 2018.

Image credit: ESA

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