Senators seek funding boost for NASA and NSF astrophysics programs

Senators seek funding boost for NASA and NSF astrophysics programs

Senators seek funding boost for NASA and NSF astrophysics programs

WASHINGTON — Five senators are asking the White House to include at least $300 million in the next budget proposal for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support priorities from the decade-long astrophysics survey.

The letter of December 21, released January 5 by one of the signers, Senator Ben Ray Luján (DN.M.), asked the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to include “specific, increased funding” for NASA and NSF astrophysics programs in the FY2024 budget proposal under development. This budget will already be published at the beginning of February.

The senators called for at least $150 million in additional funding for NSF’s astronomical sciences to support design work for new observatories. They also asked for $150 million for NASA Astrophysics to fund technology development for future space telescopes.

The additional funding, senators said, is needed to implement recommendations from the decadal astrophysics survey, known as Astro2020, released in November 2021. This report recommended that NASA conduct a technology readiness program for a series of flagship space telescope missions, beginning with a large ultraviolet, visible, and infrared telescope. It also provided NSF support for two large ground-based telescopes, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), along with the Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLT) radio observatory.

The senators argued that the additional funding would help keep the United States as a “world leader” in astronomy in competition with other countries. “Astro2020 is prioritizing investments to enable and implement major observatories, priorities that will maintain and strengthen our nation’s leadership over our adversaries and competitors in this vital area of ​​science,” they wrote.

Along with Luján, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) sign the letter. Maryland hosts NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which would play a key role in the future development of space telescopes. New Mexico is home to the Very Large Array and would house the core of the ngVLA. Hawaii’s Maunakea is the proposed home for TMT, although protests and litigation have halted construction.

Fiscal year 2024 budget requests for NASA and NSF will be the first to be fully briefed by Astro2020. When the final report was published in November 2021, work on the budget proposals for FY2023 was well advanced and is due to be published in early 2022, although the report’s recommendations were limited. NASA, for example, called for the end of funding for the SOFIA flight observatory in its proposal for fiscal year 2023, citing a corresponding recommendation in Astro2020.

Both agencies are taking steps to implement Astro2020 recommendations within existing budgets and programs. At a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics on Dec. 2, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said the agency is formulating a Great Observatories Technology and Maturation Program (GOMAP) as recommended by Astro2020 .

“I’m very conscious and strategic about how we conduct this next big flagship mission,” he said of the large ultraviolet-visible-infrared telescope currently working as the Habitable Worlds Observatory. “We are currently working on a plan for implementing GOMAP, the Missions and Technology Maturation Program, as well as how we will operate this observatory.”

Clampin didn’t go into detail on GOMAP or the Habitable Worlds Observatory at the meeting, other than that the observatory’s focus “from day one” will be on the schedule and its science goals. He said he will provide more details on those plans at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle Jan. 8-12.

At the same committee meeting on Dec. 1, Debra Fischer, director of astronomy at NSF, said her agency was still evaluating how the Astro2020 recommendations could be implemented, particularly for the large observatories she recommended. Because those talks were still ongoing at the time, she said she couldn’t discuss details about those plans.

“To me, navigating these projects, because they are so expensive, feels like taking a very big ship and navigating it through a very narrow channel where we really don’t know if the water is deep enough,” she said. “For all of these projects, there are probably a hundred reasons why they might eventually fail. I will make sure nothing happens in the astronomy department that slows them down.”

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