Space research here faces a horizon of closures, cuts

2012-02-15T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T11:22:52Z Space research here faces a horizon of closures, cutsTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 15, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Timothy D. Swindle was named director of the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Monday - the very day NASA proposed scrapping two Mars missions that could end up cutting a $30 million camera being developed at the lab.

Budget cuts proposed by the president Monday could also accelerate closure of the iconic McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak.

Swindle said he recognizes the budget difficulties facing the United States.

"It's not realistic to think the NASA budget would be growing at this point, and that's too bad. When you build spacecraft, it's not that you've launched all our bills into space. You've created jobs for engineers, scientists and in education," said Swindle.

NASA's proposed budget is 5 percent less than this year's, but its planetary science budget faces 20 percent cuts.

LPL's biggest project, the OSIRIS-REx mission to return a sample of an asteroid from space, was spared the budget ax.

That $800 million contract could bring up to $200 million directly to the UA, which is already directing it from the Michael Drake Building near campus - the former Phoenix Mars Lander building which was renamed for Swindle's predecessor.

The budget proposed to Congress by President Obama covered the ballooning costs of the James Webb Space Telescope and also boosted funding for OSIRIS-REx, while it abandoned plans for joint Mars missions by NASA and the European Space Agency.

The first of them, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, would have included a camera designed and built by a UA team headed by Alfred McEwen. That team already operates the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The new camera would have captured four-color, 3-D images five times the size of those taken by HiRISE.

NASA's proposed budget has upset supporters of planetary exploration. Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, issued a statement saying it will "take us down the wrong path."

"Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the moon, comets, and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the moon, and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less," said Nye.

Swindle said LPL could also be affected by NASA plans to cancel a future competition for mid-sized space missions.

He was gratified, he said, that the agency recommended full funding for research and analysis. "Those are the funds that most people here rely on," he said.

Space scientists and astronomers had been told to expect cuts in programs, all of which had been predicated on increasing budgets.

The astronomy budget of the National Science Foundation held bad news for the National Solar Observatory.

Its overall budget would be cut 12 percent under the proposal, and it would have to begin closing one of its two facilities on Kitt Peak near Tucson or Sacramento Peak in New Mexico this year. Both those facilities were slated for closure sometime in the next decade as the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope is built in Hawaii.

Observatory Director Steve Keil did not respond to a request for comment.

The Tucson-based National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which operates infrared and optical telescopes on Kitt Peak and in Hawaii and Chile, had already braced for cuts in its budget.

Director David Silva said the proposed budget is a mixed bag for his agency. It continues cuts in instrumentation for large, 8.1-meter Gemini telescopes in Chile and Hawaii but supports instruments that will give new life to 4-meter telescopes in Chile and on Kitt Peak. (A meter is slightly less than 40 inches.)

"I'm still very optimistic about Big BOSS," said Silva. That program would retrofit the 4-meter Mayall Telescope on Kitt Peak, turning it into a wide-field spectrograph that could provide a history of the expansion of the universe and insights into the nature of dark energy.

On StarNet: Find more coverage of science and technology at azstarnet.com/science

DID YOU KNOW?

The 4-meter Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope was one of the largest optical telescopes in the world when completed in 1970. It is named for the former director of Kitt Peak National Observatory.

At 18 stories high and located just below the summit of Kitt Peak at 6,875 feet, it can be seen from more than 50 miles away.

Source: NOAO

NEW DIRECTOR

Timothy D. Swindle, the new director of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is 56. He is a professor of planetary sciences and geosciences, and had been interim director of LPL since the death of Michael Drake in September.

Swindle is a cosmochemist who studies noble gases in meteorites. He has spent his 25-year academic career at the UA.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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