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Astronomers Grapple with Budgetary Uncertainty

By Jeff Foust, Space Politics

This week, about 3,000 astronomers are gathered in Long Beach, Calif., for the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Just one day into the four-day meeting, there have already been major announcements, ranging from a new set of potential extrasolar planets found by Kepler to some of the first results from the NuSTAR x-ray telescope. That excitement, though, it tempered by uncertainty about future budgets both in the near and long term, and what effects those budgets will have on access to spacecraft and telescopes, as well as grants to support research.

At a meeting Sunday of three program analysis groups (PAGs) chartered by NASA to provide community guidance to its astrophysics programs, Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, argued that the situation facing astronomers today was actually a good one. “It’s a time of opportunity for us in astrophysics,” he told a standing-room-only audience. He said the NASA astrophysics budgets were at a “high level” with a fleet of missions active today or under development. “If we, as a community, complain about how bad things are, we will look foolish.”

However, he acknowledged near-term concerns, since the fiscal year 2013 budget has yet to be completed, more than three months into the year. “The budgetary future is uncertain,” he said, citing the continuing resolution in place through March and the lack of resolution about potential budget cuts from sequestration.

The near-term challenge is managing development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), whose increased costs have put a squeeze on other science programs at NASA. Hertz noted that, counting JWST, there is actually more money in NASA’s astrophysics program now, and planned for the next few years, than what the most recent astrophysics decadal survey, published in 2010, projected. “But, in parallel with the budget going up, the requirements to complete successfully JWST have increased substantially” beyond previous plans, he said. “That’s the biggest thing that leads us with less money to put on other things in this decade.”

If sequestration or other budget cuts go into effect in the near term, Hertz believed JWST might be insulated from them given its status as an agency priority. NASA and key members of Congress have previously identified JWST as one of NASA’s three top objectives, alongside development of the Space Launch System and Orion, and utilization of the International Space Station. “My interpretation of that is that even if we have sequestration, or flattening of the budget or reduction of the NASA bottom line, successfully executing JWST to its plan will remain a priority, which means JWST will not participate in the budget reduction,” he said, adding that this was his own interpretation and not based on guidance from NASA leadership. Other astrophysics programs, though, could face cuts, he warned.

JWST’s funding priorities have made it difficult for NASA to implement missions recommended in the decadal survey, but Hertz said that should change around fiscal year 2017, when the budget for JWST ramps down as it approaches completion. That would open up a wedge for new missions, including the top priority large mission identified in the 2010 report, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Several studies are underway on various options for WFIRST, including one that would make use of one of the 2.4-meter telescopes donated to NASA last year by the NRO, as well as other, smaller mission concepts. Those concept studies are due to be completed by 2015 to provide time for NASA to make a decision on what mission to request a new start for in the FY17 budget proposal.

WFIRST, in some form, would be the frontrunner if the budget is there for it, but Hertz cautioned the experience of JWST could make Congress or the White House wary about another large-scale mission. “If we can start start a large mission, that large mission is WFIRST,” he said. “We cannot assume that, when we get to 2015, we will get signals from the people who hold the gateways to our budget that they are comfortable with us starting another large mission so quickly after JWST.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is also facing budget pressures with its smaller astrophysics program: about $235 million in FY12, which it uses to support several ground-based observatories and fund research grants. That budget is being stressed, though, by increased operational costs for its observatories and budgets not matching pace with the projections in the astrophysics decadal report. To address that mismatch, the NSF commissioned in 2011 a “portfolio review” of its programs and facilities. The review’s final report, released last August, recommended NSF divest itself of several existing observatories, including the Green Bank radio telescope and several telescopes at Kitt Peak.

At an NSF town hall meeting at the AAS conference Monday, NSF officials didn’t have much new information about either the budget or the status of implementing the review’s recommendations. “We have to decide what to do by essentially the end of the calendar year 2013 if we’re going to realize any significant savings, any redistributions, by about 2017,” one of the goals of the review, said James Ulvestad, director of the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. “No decisions have been made by NSF to date.”

Ulvestad noted that the NSF “divesting” these observatories doesn’t necessarily mean they would close, if other organizations are willing to take over operations. Unlike the report, which only considered complete divestment of these observatories, he said the NSF would be open to continuing partial support of some of them if other organizations could handle most of the costs of running them.

Ulvestad said he received criticism from the community that the two budget scenarios in the portfolio review were too pessimistic. One, “Scenario A,” had a near-term 10% drop that gradually rose back to 2012 levels by the end of the decade; the other, “Scenario B,” featured a 20% cut followed by flat funding. Scenario A, he said, “is effectively the best we’re going to do” in the current budget environment. “We can’t just operate on hope.”

This article originally appeared on spacepolitics.com. Used with permission.

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