WASHINGTON — NASA plans to cut the budget for two of its largest space telescopes as it faces deeper spending cuts for its astrophysics programs.
In an Oct. 13 presentation to the Committee of the National Academies of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said he was exploring unspecified reductions in the NASA’s operating budgets. Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope in order to preserve funding. for other division priorities.
The potential reductions, he said, are driven by the expectation that his division will not receive the entire nearly $1.56 billion request for the 2024 fiscal year. due to legislation passed in June that caps non-defense discretionary spending for 2024 at 2023 levelswith an increase of only 1% for 2025.
“We are working with the expectation that FY24 budgets will remain at FY23 levels,” he said. “This means that we have decided to reduce the budget for missions in extended operations, namely Chandra and Hubble.”
Clampin declined to say to what extent the budgets of these two observatories would be reduced, nor the specific impacts these reductions would have on them. He said the proposed cuts are still under review, noting that he was able to make a “positive adjustment” for Chandra just last week.
Chandra and Hubble are NASA’s two most expensive astrophysics missions after the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA requested $93.3 million for Hubble and $68.7 million for Chandra in its fiscal 2024 budget proposal, consistent with previous years’ budgets. Together, they represent just over 10 percent of NASA’s FY 2024 astrophysics budget request.
They are also among NASA’s two oldest missions, with Hubble launching in 1990 and Chandra in 1999. Clampin suggested that was a reason to cut their budgets. “Chandra has a number of problems at the moment. It’s getting harder and harder to exploit,” he said. The insulation on the outside of the spacecraft is deteriorating, heating up the spacecraft and making operations increasingly difficult.
“Although Hubble does not have these problems,” he added, “it has been operating for a long time and represents a significant part of the astrophysics budget.”
Clampin said he plans two “high-level mini-reviews” for Chandra and Hubble, likely in May 2024 after the fiscal 2025 budget proposal is released. NASA is conducting high-level reviews to decide whether and how to extend scientific spacecraft that have accomplished their primary missions.
In the last senior review of astrophysics in 2022, Chandra and Hubble were effectively exempted, with separate committees studying each mission to look for efficiencies and other improvements rather than examining whether the mission itself should be extended.
“Hubble and Chandra take first place given their immense and broad impact on astronomy.” the final report of the 2022 high-level review declared. “Both missions operate at extremely high efficiency and, although they are showing increasing signs of aging, they will likely continue to produce world-class science results over the next five years, working in concert with JWST as he begins to play his flagship role. »
Clampin said any savings from Chandra and Hubble would be allocated to other astrophysics priorities. “What we’re trying to do, though, is protect future missions and develop international missions and partnerships,” he said. This includes the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, smaller Explorer-class astrophysics missions, and NASA’s role in missions led by other countries, such as ESA’s LISA gravitational-wave observatory and the Israeli gravitational wave observatory. Ultrasat ultraviolet observatory.
He said he also wanted to protect early work on the Habitable Worlds Observatory, the next flagship astrophysics mission after Roman, scheduled to launch in the 2040s. “It is absolutely fundamental to continue to advance the Habitable Worlds Observatory,” he said. This includes the first call for proposals to develop key technologies for this large space telescope and to fund teams studying science and technology topics for it.
He added that NASA is also considering “small reductions” for other operational missions, which he did not identify, as well as reductions in technology development spending.
All these plans, he said, were aimed at protecting against possible sharp cuts in the astrophysics sector. A Senate version of a Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) spending bill for fiscal year 2024 would give NASA Astrophysics $1.544 billion, less than the request but still on top of the $1.51 billion received in 2023. House donors have yet to publicly disclose details on its CJS spending bill.
“It’s entirely possible that when we get credit, given what you see on the news every day, we could be even well below the 23 level,” he warned the committee. “The outlook is not happy there.”