The golden age (is ending)

By Daniel Holz | October 21, 2010 1:45 pm

As has been oft remarked on this blog, we are in a golden age of astrophysics and cosmology. The data is pouring down from the heavens, in large part from 14 state-of-the-art NASA space telescopes. However, this cornucopia of astronomy is about to come to a crashing stop. We are at the high-water mark, and the next few years are going to see a rapid decline in the number of observatories in space. In five years most, if not all, of these telescopes will be defunct (WMAP is already in the graveyard), and it’s not clear what will be replacing them. This is brought into startling focus by the following plot:
NASA space missions
The dotted line shows “today”. In a few years, the only significant US space observatory may be the James Webb Space Telescope (assuming it’s on budget and on time, neither of which are to be taken for granted). The reasons for the current “bubble” in resources, and the impending crash, are myriad and complex. These missions take many years, if not multiple decades, to plan and execute, and we are currently reaping the harvest of ancient boom times. But one aspect subtly implied by this graph is the impact of JWST on space funding. The cost of this mission is now over $5 billion, and continues to rise. Very optimistically, the mission will be in space in 2014, and will continue to consume major developmental resources until then. In an era of fiscal austerity, it is difficult to imagine that the immense ongoing cost of JWST leaves room for much else to be done. The community has gone through the painful exercise of winnowing down its “wish list” to a few key, high-impact missions (as detailed by Julianne here, here, and here; my summary here). It is not immediately apparent that even this fairly “modest” list is attainable given current budget realities. Astronomical data from space over the next decade will pale in comparison to the previous one. We are at a unique moment in the history of space astronomy; it is highly unlikely that we will have fourteen major space astrophysics missions flying again within our lifetimes. We need to make the most of what we have, while we still have it.

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  • Thomas

    The congressionally-mandated report on the future of JWST is expected out soon and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few years slip, and additional significant money, that completely invalidates the wish list/goals of the recently released decadal survey. We need to look at simpler, smaller missions (Explorers), and partnerships (ESA and JAXA) very seriously.

  • Alex Conley

    And don’t forget that SOFIA is estimated to cost $3.75 billion over its lifetime, which will continue to interfere with smaller missions ever happening — and with far, far less scientific impact than JWST.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Shhh. Bad as it is, you don’t want it going the way of the SSC.

  • Peter Coles

    I suppose the end of the Golden Age was inevitable, but the danger is that what follows it might be another Stone Age.

  • Alex D

    These are all space telescopes. You do not mention any of the new ground telescopes that are just now coming online, will be coming online, and are predicted to have the capability of taking clearer pictures than the Hubble due to adaptive mirrors. Not to mention that anything ground based is much cheaper to maintain than something in space.

    I don’t think we’re at the end of the golden age at all. Just because we are about to experience a paradigm shift in HOW we collect data, doesn’t mean the data collection will stop.

  • Greenish

    Well, the bright side is that the 14 missions are creating a glut of data at a level of detail we’ve never had before. It’s not full compensation, but at least we can spend a while catching up with and mining the data for deeper insight until some faster/better/cheaper missions get back up there.

  • Mr. D.

    I think that this graph is slightly disingenuous in not showing missions that have already finished (say, CGRO).

    That being said, I wholeheartedly agree about the message. From my grad student perspective, I think that a revolution is needed in the way that astrophysical mission spending is done.

    The baseline mission should be a SMEX. Any mission requiring more spending should justify that money in terms of (proportionally) increased science return (either qualitative or according to some model-dependant metric). Say, if in FY2015, the total amount available for astrophysical missions is 1.2G$. An AO for a total of 10 SMEX would be made. If, say, you wanted to pitch a larger mission, for example an Advanced Comton Telescope with a cost of 800M$, you would need to offer science return comparable to ~7 of the SMEX proposals for that year.

    As comparison, SOFIA, at a price of ~3G$ is the equivalent of 25 SMEX missions. JWST at 5G$ is the equivalent of 42 SMEX missions. If these had not happened you’d be looking at a very large lot of small missions instead of two large white elephants that probably won’t deliver anywhere as much.

    Anyhow, that’s the way I see it.

    P.S.: And let us not forget the AMS-01 and AMS-02 missions, estimated at 1.5G$, another dozen SMEX.

  • Brian Too

    @8. Mr. D.,

    Please clarify the apparent acronym SMEX. I understand you to mean that this is a spending unit of $120 million USD. Correct?

  • Mr. D.

    A SMEX is a SMall EXplorer: a mission with a total cost (development, construction, launch, support, telemetry, etc.) less than 120M$(FY2010). Examples include GALEX, NuSTAR, GEMS.

  • Gary

    “We need to make the most of what we have, while we still have it.”

    If there isn’t enough public money to fund such missions, and yourself, start a business and fund what you want with what you can do to get it done.

    Yeah, I know.

    I know. I was paid with public money to teach astronomy for 20-some years. I love these missions and their science every bit as much as you.

    I’ve been self-employed these past almost 20 years. Funny what more you can do with earned income.

    Also funny what ‘you’ can’t do without the appropriated means of actual wealth producers.

    Maybe you should consider private funding of space missions–to the best of your ability. No one will then deny you your potential for accomplishment.

    Then you won’t have to cry because free money isn’t always extant.

    The Universe isn’t crying because you can’t figure out how to privately fund your own curiosities.

    I think the Universe is actually smirking.

  • Lab Lemming

    From the graph, the statistic that jumps out is the rapid decrease of lifespan with time. Is that a sampling bias (from not showing former missions), or is that real?

  • Jimbo

    No one is blind but me ! I was thinking LISA was to launch in 3-4 yrs. That’s LISA pathfinder. LISA is not due to be launched until 2025. I am so bummed out….
    Perhaps one other mission objective is blurry as well. I understood that Planck was supposed to nail the Inflaton mass. True or not ?

  • Urs

    In your list of “NASA” space telescopes there are ESA projects and collaborations with JAXA.

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  • Stephen P

    Let’s hope that at least the data which is now being gathered will be looked after more carefully than the data from some past missions. Apparently the data from a lot of twentieth-century missions has been lost/destroyed, or is on media which can no longer be read, or is undocumented so that no-one is sure what it means.

    I would have hoped that anyone who is responsible for approving an expensive space mission would be responsible enough to demand that the plans include the proper archiving of data, so that it is available to future researchers.

    Anyone know what the state of play is in this area?

  • Craig H

    Stephen, I’ve used X-ray data from observatories over the past 30 years without any problems. HEASARC at least is very good at archiving and documenting data from NASA space missions.

    Since the graph shows all extant space observatories, it should show all upcoming space observatories, no matter where they’re coming from–AstroSAT from India (launching ~2011), the Russian/ESA Spectrum-RG satellite (launch ~2012). Also, the dates given for the demise of several telescopes are rather early–I hope Chandra will continue well past 2012, for instance, and I doubt NuSTAR will not be approved for continuing science. Then I expect that further SMEXs will be approved…in sum, the plot is kind of misleading.

  • Tim

    That’s the impression I got, too – this may be the end of NASA’s space based telescope golden age, but I’d wager we’re right at the beginning of a global golden age of astronomy.

    @Lab Lemming – that’s a good point, it could be that we’re looking at the end of the primary missions (or current missions), I guess many would have opportunities for extension.

  • JBaloun

    @Urs (14) – The SOFIA is not another space telescope, it is installed on an aircraft.
    @ Mr.D – In the Nature Journal – Online article ‘NASA under the spotlight’ 21 July 2010 the SOFIA program has cost $1B over 14 years and will cost $100M a year to operate. According to the SOFIA website FAQ it will fly 960 hours a year of observation time. So the SOFIA will cost approximately $1SMEX a year during full operation. Yet, as the readers of this article should be well aware, the SOFIA can change its instruments at regular intervals, so in effect it can perform many missions during a year. As if it were 12 SMEX missions a year. In addition, the SOFIA is not fixed to a mountain top or fixed to a specific orbital plane and can intersect the target observation point at any time of night and anywhere around the world. The SOFIA facility brings a different science value to the PI. SOFIA cost to develop has been frustrating. SOFIA may be about 5 or 6 SMEX over budget and that is a waste. It looks like it will cost $3B over its life. However, SOFIA is not a $3B SMEX mission.

  • Mr. D

    @ 19: And I am not assuming that SOFIA will only return the science equivalent of a single SMEX. What I question is whether the science return of the whole program is equivalent to that of more numerous, focused, smaller missions. And yes, my order of magnitude statement about the total cost might be wrong, just adjust the expected science return from that.

  • Mr. D

    err, double post

  • JBaloun

    Comments continued (written before I read (20) above. Both SMEX and SOFIA serve different needs in astrophysics and bring different capabilities. Maybe it depends on who is taking science money from whom.):
    If a PI does not have or cannot afford 1SMEX of science, on SOFIA they can participate in 0.5, 0.25, or maybe even 0.1SMEX of equivalent science cost, just like ground based observatories. Also if the proposed observation does not need 1SMEX of continuous observation time the PI can return to SOFIA every few months over 5 or 10 years to tailor the observation hours to the science, again like ground based science. If a SOFIA flight ends up a total failure you have only lost a few hours of operation and maybe the development cost, not the cost of the development and launch of a SMEX. If a PI becomes aware of an opportunity, SOFIA can respond in a matter of days, not the year(s) it takes to pull together a quick SMEX.

    @Gary I should not have to tell you that science, by its nature is at high risk. Often higher than that in which private investors are interested. A space science mission can risk total failure due to failure of a simple mechanism or the scientific discovery may prove the theory wrong. However the return can be significantly greater than the cost. For example, the solar observation missions may shed light on the true nature of Earth’s climate change which can save the planet many billions of dollars either saved or not spent. Is it reasonable to expect a scientist to dedicate their life to expanding the boundary of science *and* that they be competent business professionals to solicit and win over private investors. These are two different careers. Can one person be expected to do both? If we had to wait for private investment, would technology have advanced as far?

  • Brian137

    I think the Universe is actually smirking.

    Things do seem to have a sense of humor.

    Sigh, I was stuck between SOFIA and SMEX. What to do? Two flames, one bank account. Then the immortal words of the great musical gurus rang in my mind’s ear – “You gotta love the one you’re with.” That’s It!!! Enjoy what is.

    Ugh Ohh, now I want LISA.

  • Brian Too

    6. Alex D,

    Agreed. Just imagine, we are going to build telescopes with a primary mirror diameter of 30 metres! A hundred feet across on a precision instrument!! And adaptive optics, against all odds, actually works.

    Huge money is being poured into ground telescopes and there is every reason to believe they will be successful. One can only guess at what all that observing instrumentation will find.

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    This is really just reflective of the general decline of science and indeed intellectualism in general.

    The decline began in the 1970s in theoretical physics. The Standard Model was the high mark for this most central of all scientifically subjects. As fundamental progress stalled, so too did progress in related fields, and eventually so too will all serious science and progress. The lack of space telescope missions is merely a symptom of this.

    Realistically I feel the space exploration peak technologies was the launch of the Voyager probes in the late 70s. Progress has been made since then of course, but the hard fact is that Western countries lost interest in funding space exploration, telescope and the like long ago.

    We have left the promise and optimism of the scientific method behind and are entering an age of ideology and ignorance. People see little need for space telescopes in the modern age.

  • http://none joe dubovy

    shift from space based optical data collection to ground based due to wise determination that microwave data collection from ground far more productive, cost-effective, and

  • Chris T

    The graph above is a bit misleading as to the end dates. The end dates listed are simply when the observatories are currently budgeted to. Later reviews may extend the lives of quite a few of the craft.

  • Ken C

    The closure of the Great Observatories program and the decline in space-based observatories simply marks a shift from one era of science objectives to another. The ground-based efforts in the optical, infrared, sub-mm, and radio mark the move to exploring the high-redshift universe and testing our present cosmological models. Building, for example, a 10 m telescope or radio interferometer in space is unrealistic, so cheaper, bigger projects are being built on Earth (e.g. TMT and SKA) that can achieve the same, AND MORE, space-based science objectives.

    The real damage to the space program is in high-energy astrophysics (X-ray and gamma-ray), the regime in which ground-based observing is not possible. NASA’s essential axe to the neck of the International X-ray Observatory and no plan for a successor to Fermi leaves a huge gap for ESA and JAXA to fill. Astro-H is a nice stop-gap, but a long-term replacement plan for XMM and Chandra are needed (specifically IXO and WFXT).

    Just my two cents. :)

  • Charon

    @Alex D: “You do not mention any of the new ground telescopes…”

    That’s because AO, as nice as it is, replaces only a very small part of what space does for us. Let’s see, from the ground we can observe in the optical, a few bands in the NIR, and the radio. From space, we additionally get mm, all IR, UV, x-ray, and gamma ray. We’re blind to a huge amount of the universe, from the ground.

    Hey, I’m as excited about LSST and the E-ELT as anyone. But they do not provide a substitute for space observatories.

  • Jolyon Bloomfield

    That is a beautiful graph. Thanks for sharing it =)

  • réalta fuar

    Very misleading graph, as many have pointed out. Come back in 10 years and things likely will look pretty much like they do today. Emphasis will change (less high energy, for example) but the amount of good science from space and the ground will likely still make a decade from now appear as though the Golden Age hasn’t ended at all. Another way of looking at things is that the era of Great Observatories was expensive because it HAD to be as entirely new areas of science were opened up. EXPLOITING those opportunites shouldn’t require that level of expenditure.

  • Shantanu

    You didn’t mention many important missions such as
    Beppo-SAX, PAMELA,AGILE, USA (which was I think Los Alamos-centric) Gravity Probe B, GRACE, LAGEOS and the last 3 are for gravity research.
    among upcoming missions, don’t see AMS. Lator in your graph.

  • Gary

    “22. JBaloun Says: “I should not have to tell you that science, by its nature is at high risk.”
    Oh, come on.”

    Science, during the courses of both its amateur and professional tenures, has always been at risk–by the failure of its own powers of explainable probity.

    If Science cannot defend itself on its own merit, it will always be at risk of the easier insult by popular opprobrium.

  • Brian

    This is bad data, because the bars for past missions include mission extensions. If you’re going to compare past missions to future missions on a timeline, then you need to display the past missions with their intended mission lifetime at the date of launch.

  • Martin E.

    Despite not including mission extensions, the graph does capture something important: the age of the Great Observatories is ending. For the last decade or so we’ve had three Great Observatories operating together. They are a set of well-matched telescopes covering X-ray (Chandra), UV/optical/near-IR (Hubble) and mid-IR (Spitzer). This meant that a discovery in one band could be followed up in another in about a year. This led to a terrific synergy between the 3 Observatories.
    JWST was assumed to be the first of the ‘Greater Observatories’, but is has cost so much and, unlike Hubble, is not serviceable in orbit so it’s lifetime will likely be no more than 10 years. JWST covers the near-IR and mid-IR (and some of the visible). Follow-up in the UV or X-ray bands in the JWST era will take at least a decade, destroying the creative feedback.
    The problem really is primarily the high cost of JWST. It costs something like 500M$/year, so a delay of 2 years (which is quite plausible) would eat up about half of the expected funding for new starts on missions. Then there would be no other big missions even begun until 2015-2018, with a flight no sooner than ~2025.
    I agree that cheaper, Explorer-class, missions are the way to go, but they have a diffuse community supporting them, while flagship missions collect a dedicated arm of supporters. To read more about Explorers check out:

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  • Edwin Hubble

    On the subject of whether several small explorers or a facility class space telescope provide more scientific return (a handful of SMEX or a JWST) we only have to look to the Hubble Space Telescope. The scientific return from Hubble has been many orders of magnitude more than we ever expected. Its reach beyond the 5000 or more scientists who have used its data is clear, the inspiration of a nation and the world. As a thought experiment consider that if we had a program of 10 SMEX programs over a 20 years span it would support perhaps a community of 500 scientists. Sounds pretty good. But consider that the community which will use and be supported by JWST will be around 8000 scientists, from senior researchers to postdocs and graduate students. The expectation is that the reach of JWST in terms of science outreach and literacy will have a similar impact to Hubble. If you review the plot with this in mind, we are still in the golden age at least through 2025.

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