Astronomy missions pass senior review

Space

RENTON, Wash. — NASA has decided to extend the lifetimes of all eight astrophysics missions up for review, from large space telescopes to an instrument on the International Space Station.

In a July 17 memo, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics mission, announced he was approving extensions through 2022 for the eight missions after accepting the results of a senior review panel that found that the missions were generating enough scientific benefit to warrant continued operations.

The eight missions include two of NASA’s original Great Observatories, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Also included in the review was the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument on the ISS and NASA participation in the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton mission.

The senior review panel had recommended that all eight missions continue in its final report to NASA in June. “NASA should strive to support all eight of the missions considered by the 2019 Senior Review at or above the level of their baseline requests,” that report stated.

NASA accepted those recommendations with few changes. The senior review report suggested NASA increase funding for “guest observer” observations using XMM-Newton, but Hertz noted that was considered less important than increases elsewhere, and as a result the mission will be extended with no changes in its budget.

Senior reviews, which NASA performs for science missions that have exceeded their prime mission, have in the past caused considerable angst as scientists and NASA faced tough decisions about which missions to continue and which to terminate. This review, though, was far more upbeat, with members of the senior review panel clearly pleased with the operations of those missions they examined.

“Reviewing this suite of missions has been a refreshing experience,” the senior review report stated. “Missions that began their scientific lives a decade or more ago have re-invented themselves in ways that respond to changing science opportunities and the goals of the worldwide astrophysics community.”

Hertz, in his memo approving the mission extensions, stated those extensions are contingent on his division getting the funding it requested in fiscal year 2020. “Additionally, some adjustments will need to be made within the Astrophysics Division budget to accommodate all operating missions,” he wrote.

All of the missions will also be eligible to seek extensions in the next astrophysics senior review, scheduled for 2022, if they are still operational at that time.

Not included in the senior review was the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). NASA decided to exclude SOFIA given Congressional language in a fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill that directed NASA to not spend any funding to prepare the airborne observatory for a senior review. SOFIA, declared operational in 2014, has a five-year prime mission, and thus otherwise would have been eligible for the 2019 senior review.

NASA instead elected to perform two separate reviews of SOFIA, one examining its operations and the other its science. Hertz said during a town hall meeting at the latest meeting of the American Astronomical Society in June that, as a result of the reviews, the agency would be making changes to SOFIA operations to improve its scientific productivity.

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