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“Constrained budget conditions” have prompted NASA to not approve a funding extension for the 11-year-old Spitzer Space Telescope after fiscal 2015, but Spitzer officials emphasized that doesn’t necessarily mean the mission is terminated.
“To be clear: Spitzer has not been canceled. Funding not yet identified, but NASA has asked us for a revised budget,” the Spitzer Twitter account wrote to several individuals after news broke that the telescope was not approved in agency’s Senior Review, a process to see how well ongoing missions are performing to expectations.
What this means is that the telescope is expected to go with the “baseline” plan to finish operations after the end of fiscal 2014 and terminate the mission by the end of fiscal 2015, a process that was already outlined in the NASA budget request for 2015. But there’s a chance, officials said, that this would not happen.
“The Spitzer project is invited to respond with a request for a budget augmentation to conduct continued operations with reduced operations costs,” read the NASA response to the 2014 senior review.
This “will be considered during the FY 2016 budget formulation process,” NASA added. “If the administration proposes additional funding for Spitzer in the FY16 Budget, the project will be able to seamlessly continue operations in FY15, while awaiting final appropriations from the Congress for FY16.”
The mission was being reviewed in association with several other astrophysics missions, such as the Kepler space telescope — an exoplanet-hunting probe that was sidelined by a mechanical issue, but was approved in the same review for a new mission.
Spitzer drew concern in the senior review for its “significant current cost”, which is reportedly the most expensive among the missions being considered this time around. The cost also concerned the reviewers because Spitzer’s “observational capabilities are significantly reduced” since the telescope ran out of coolant in 2009.
That said, the so-called “warm” Spitzer mission — which allows it to view different parts of the infrared despite operating at a higher temperature — did impress reviewers with its ability to measure light, especially since it has been able to conduct wide-field surveys that “will not be approached” until the James Webb Space Telescope goes to orbit in 2018.
“The cost is particularly difficult in the context of an observatory with greatly reduced capabilities with respect to its prime mission,” the review read. “The mission also did not present substantial plans to reduce operations costs with such reduced capabilities. Given the budget climate, the SRP cannot recommend funding of Spitzer at the levels requested.”
While criticizing the cost, the senior review also noted Spitzer has been doing a lot of “unexpected science” such as looking at the atmosphere of exoplanets and brown dwarfs, and identifying the galaxies that are speeding away from Earth the fastest (also known as “high-redshift galaxies.”)
According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these are some of Spitzer’s other notable finds:
- Seeing light from a planet outside of the solar system, which was not in the design plans;
- Surveying stars in formation in clouds that are relatively close to Earth;
- Creating a better map of the Milky Way’s spiral arms.
NASA also regularly does image releases with wavelengths from all three of its “Great Observatories”: Spitzer, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Funding extension for both Chandra and Hubble were approved in the review. You can read more about the review at this website.