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NASA panel to judge operating missions

The gloomy budget climate causes plenty of hand-wringing at NASA over possible future missions — missions such as a Mars sample return, or one to constrain dark energy. But currently operating missions are under the gun, too.

To that end, NASA conducts “senior reviews” every two years, where operating missions compete against each other and are judged by a panel of space scientists on their science capability per dollar. The resulting ranking advises NASA on which missions to augment, and which ones to cut. On 13 October, NASA’s acting astrophysics division director Geoff Yoder told astronomers at an NSF meeting that he was ready to begin a senior review for 2012.

It will be tougher competition than last time. In 2010, 11 missions competed — but there were several aging, obvious missions to phase out, like RXTE and GALEX. This time, there are nine missions, and among them in the room is an elephant: the recently refurbished Hubble Space Telescope. “The smaller projects shouldn’t be worried that they’re going to be gobbled up by Hubble,” says Yoder.

Three of the missions are ones where NASA plays a supporting role to a foreign-led mission: Planck, Suzaku and XMM-Newton. But the six others are big ones: Hubble, Chandra, Kepler, Fermi, Swift and the “warm” Spitzer mission. There are few obvious decisions. Spitzer has started to experience diminishing returns since its cryogenic cooling system was exhausted in 2009, but it is still one of the few telescopes that can grab spectra from extra-solar planets. The competition is fierce enough that scientists with Kepler are worried that they won’t get money they need to keep operating for another four years — time they need to reach Earth-sized planets.

Yoder says they shouldn’t freak out too much. The pot of money that the senior review committee will play with could conceivably support all nine missions, he says. On the other hand, he says, he doesn’t want to tie the committee’s hands in the case that it wants to recommend augmentations for certain missions.

One mission that won’t have to compete is SOFIA, the airborne observatory that eats up some $75 million a year in operations — just $20 million less per year than the Hubble Space Telescope, which delivers far more science. NASA usually waits until a mission enters its prime phase before it is forced to compete in a senior review; SOFIA has been in development for 15 years and is still slowly ramping up its science activities. Yoder says SOFIA isn’t likely to compete in a senior review until 2018, by which time it will have consumed another half-billion dollars.

The dozen-person committee is apt to be selected by December, Yoder says, and its final report will be due on 30 March.


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