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Delays All Around for Astrophysics Explorer Program

Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division. Credit: NASA photo by Paul E. Alers

WASHINGTON —There will be delays all around in NASA’s Astrophysics explorer program as tightening budgets force the agency to divert money previously intended for new and ongoing competitions into missions already selected for funding.

“We’re going to have to delay future [competitions] because we need this money to get TESS [the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite] and Nicer [the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer] going,” Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division, said May 2 in a teleconference with members of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee. The $200 million TESS space telescope and Nicer, a $50 million hosted observatory bound for the  international space station, were selected for funding in April.

Getting TESS and Nicer going on time means there is no money left over to start a new small explorer competition in 2013, Hertz said. It also means there is no money to award to an astrophysics explorer mission of opportunity announced last fall. Missions of opportunity, of which Nicer is one, can be hosted payload, high-altitude balloon or airborne missions.

The final 2013 budget for the Astrophysics Division, like the rest of NASA, has not been settled yet. Congress passed an omnibus spending bill March 26 to fund the government through October, but the amounts in the bill are subject to across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. NASA will specify the exact effects of sequestration on its programs for the rest of 2013 in a document called an operating plan, which congressional sources said is due on Capitol Hill by May 10. 

“If you estimate that astrophysics will have something like 6.8 percent below the $659 million [requested for 2013], that’s a perfectly fine, rough estimate,” Hertz said. That would leave astrophysics with about $614 million.

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