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NASA Advisory Council Origins Subcommittee Meeting Notes December 2001

Status Report From: NASA Advisory Council
Posted: Friday, December 21, 2001

ORIGINS SUBCOMMITTEE (OS) MEETING
Cocoa Beach, FL
December 3-4, 2001

Letter to Origins Director Dr. Anne Kinney from Dr. Alan Dressler, Chair of OS

Dear Dr. Kinney;

The Origins Subcommittee met in Cocoa Beach, Florida on December 3-4, 2001.  We were pleased to be briefed by you, Phil Crane, and Hashima Hasan on the progress of the Astronomical Search for Origins Theme, and to begin work on the 2003 Origins Roadmap as part of NASA’s Strategic Planning process.

Origins Missions

Phil Crane reviewed the status of Origins missions.  In general, the news is very good.  We regret that the budget problems of FAME have not yet been resolved, and that  FAME’s cancellation still looms as a troubling possibility.  The OS continues to vigorously support FAME’s scientific mission and hopes that a solution can be found.  The Keck Interferometer is still struggling with vibration problems and the permits for the Outrigger Telescopes are not yet obtained, but there is encouraging progress on both fronts.  The postponement in the launch of SIRTF due to the delayed delivery of flight software is a great disappointment, but our hopes for this vitally important mission remain high.

Two New Working Groups

We thank you and Dr. Hasan for updating us on several activities of joint interest to OS and SEUS.  The Astrophysics Working Group (AWG) is being re-organized and renamed the Astronomy & Physics Working Group (APWG).  The APWG will have a chair and a deputy who will be members of the OS and SEUS, respectively.  In this manner, information will flow upwards from APWG through OS and SEUS to you and the other officers of Code S.  Similarly, the newly created Science Archives Working Group (SAWG) will provide critically needed input on what has become an indispensable component of the successful Code S mission.  The OS endorses this plan, which now formalizes the activities and input previously provided by the AWG, and looks forward to working with the APWG and SAWG.

NVO

We appreciated hearing your thoughts on A&P's role in implementing the National Virtual Observatory (NVO), as we requested in our July 2001 letter.  The OS agrees with you that NASA needs a more complete picture of what NVO is before it can develop an inplementation plan.  Towards this end, we recognize the efforts of the NSF-funded Information Technology Research Initiative and the joint NASA/NSF Science Definition team to better define the program.  In particular, these efforts will better define the science priorities and clarify how NVO is different from the sum of existing services and data centers.  They will further outline the technical approach, describe what level of new effort is needed in each area, and recommend consolidation of existing functions in order to affect cost savings.  We believe it is important to support these activities, which are taking place at a national level, rather than smaller-scale, perhaps disconnected efforts. As you also pointed out, through OSS missions some of the essential elements of NVO are already in place --- extensive data archives, data reduction tools, and research grants for carrying out such investigations. Furthermore, by aligning development and support activities at the NASA Data Centers (MAST, HEASARC, and IPAC) with NVO objectives, the Centers can and should play a central role in NVO implementation.  We suggest that the results of SDT and NSF-ITR effort to better define the near-term scope and goals of NVO, vetted by the SAWG, SEUS, and OS, if you see fit, should guide your investments in NVO development.

R&A

Dr. Hasan informed us of progress in the A&P research programs, which are being restructured in FY03.  The Cosmic Ray, X-ray/Gamma-ray, UVGA and IR/submm/radio programs are now all being combined into one research program and is being renamed the APSR&T program.  This program combines all technology and laboratory proposals into a single program under the ROSS omnibus program.  Similarly, the ATP, ADP, LTSA and Origins of solar systems programs will be combined into a single program called the APRA program.  These reorganizations provide OSS with greater flexibility in distributing funds among different disciplines to achieve OSS strategic goals; the OS endorses the reorganization for this purpose.  We are concerned, however, whether this restructuring could have implications for NASA’s support of ground-based research that supports the Origins theme - these have been, and will continue to be, very important to the design of space missions.

Dr. Hasan also pointed out that two new theory initiatives have been enacted in the past year - those associated with the HST and Chandra science investigations.  This initiative was well received by the OS, and appears to provide a new avenue for funding of theoretical investigations that could not be easily pursued through the ATP.  Dr. Hasan raised some questions about the efficacy of the Long Term Space Astrophysics (LTSA) awards and how it might be improved that we will discuss further at our next meeting.   We asked in return that she inquire further about grant size in R&A awards.  Larger grants have in particular been essential in supporting Laboratory Astrophysics programs, and the OS is eager to see the availability of these awards continue.

OS Roadmap

The OS devoted several hours of this meeting to beginning the revision of the science section of the OS Roadmap.  We are pleased to have the excellent 2000 Roadmap to start with, nevertheless, we recognize the need for fine tuning the scientific objectives and adjusting the mission complement where necessary.  During one of our joint sessions with SEUS we discussed the boundary between OS and SEUS programs, for example, where do a large infrared space telescope, or a next-generation optical-UV telescope belong?  There was general agreement that both these missions belong in the Origins theme, while a mission like SNAP, the proposed space telescope to search for distant supernovae, is mainly a cosmology project and appropriate for SEUS.  We also held a joint session with SSES, the new home of the Astrobiology program, where we also found a cooperative spirit and agreement over which scientific programs in astrobiology would  remain a major interest of ASO, among them, biomarkers and prebiotic chemistry in molecular clouds and forming planetary systems.

Hubble Space Telescope

The OS wishes to thank David Leckrone for his presentation on the current status of HST and future servicing missions. We understand that the recent Cycle 11 AO garnered the second highest number of HST science proposals ever, and that guest observer orbit requests exceeded those of any previous cycle.  One cannot exaggerate HST’s scientific contributions to astronomy: it is clear that this mission continues to be arguably the most scientifically productive of the Space Science Enterprise.

The OS understands that the upcoming servicing mission SM3B, driven by the mission priorities and constraints on the astronauts, will be one of the most difficult ever undertaken.  Several of the activities of this servicing mission affect spacecraft elements critical for successful continuation of operations.  Because of this, work on the science instruments will have to wait until the last two days of a very demanding schedule of long duration EVAs, and an opportunity to replace gyros on a sixth-day EVA is uncertain. HST’s unprecedented scientific productivity depends critically on the success of SM3B and SM4; the OS concurs with the Servicing Strategy group that SM4 should retain its planned launch date in 2004.

The present plan calls for a final Shuttle mission to HST in 2010 to fetch the telescope and return it to Earth where it would become a stellar addition to the display of the nation’s scientific heritage in the National Air and Space Museum. The probable, though not certain, consequence of a six-year gap with no additional servicing missions is the loss of HST’s scientific capability before the launch of NGST.  While unfortunate, the tradeoff of NGST development at the expense of continued HST servicing has been accepted by the scientific community, as recently endorsed by the NRC 2000 Decadal report, and expressed by the OS in several previous letters to you.

The Servicing Strategy group at GSFC that you have chartered has been exploring alternative options for the final mission.  Because they believe that the 2010 retirement mission will be more challenging and expensive than might have been anticipated, the Servicing Strategy group has been exploring other options, including a 2007 servicing mission that could dramatically improve HST’s chances of remaining scientifically productive, during which a propulsion module would be attached that would allow to enable HST to undergo a safe, controlled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  The technical feasibility and cost of such a mission has yet to be determined.

With the information before us, we continue to favor the strategy of returning the HST to the ground with the Shuttle. Minimizing additional expenditures on HST is crucial in order to keep the development of NGST on track, and public safety remains a paramount concern. Of course, we strongly support measures to prolong HST’s science output that minimally impact the Astronomy & Physics program within OSS and guarantee human safety. The OS also recognizes the substantial value of placing the actual Hubble Space Telescope on permanent exhibit - it will surely inspire visitors, particularly children, for generations to come.

We thank Associate Administrator Ed Weiler for visiting the OS and sharing his opinions on this and other OS matters with us.  Given the likely gap between the demise of HST and the launch of NGST, the OS was pleased to hear Dr. Weiler emphasize the tremendous scientific value of the HST archive and promise to continue funding of HST archival research after end-of-mission.

SOFIA

The OS was pleased to hear a positive mission update on SOFIA presented by Tom Greene, the NASA Project Scientist.  The Project has rebaselined the program with the help of an Independent Management Review (IMR) and the current schedule calls for starting operations in April 2005. 

Telescope integration is underway and aircraft systems fabrication is over 50% complete.  The Level 1 requirements on image size have been relaxed to 5.3 arcsec (80% encircled energy) which means that, at the start of operations, SOFIA will be diffraction limited only beyond ~100 microns.  The intention is to improve image quality to 1.6 arcsec after 3 years of operations, consistent with the IMR recommendation to “fly it and then tune it.”

As noted in our July 2001 letter, AIRES, a high-resolution echelle spectrograph, has been canceled.  The OS is concerned that a good deal of the Origins science dealing with star-formation was to be carried out with AIRES, and that there is a further hole with respect to molecular spectroscopy through moderate-resolution near-to-mid IR spectroscopy that is particularly relevant to observations of protoplanetary disks. (EXES will operate over part of this range, but because of its higher resolution it offers very limited wavelength coverage in a single observation.) These deficiencies might be made up with future instrument development, but funds from the SOFIA operating budget would not result in instruments until late in the decade at the earliest.  The OS recommends that the SOFIA Science Working Group be asked to look further into this question with respect to the potential negative impact on Origins science.  The Origins program has counted on complementary capabilities to SIRTF in the SOFIA mission and we are very concerned that one such opportunity is being lost.  We note that one possibility for bringing addition funds or completed instruments to SOFIA is to seek further international collaboration in the mission.

USRA has instituted quarterly instrument development reviews in order to stay on top of budgetary and technical problems.  At the first of these reviews, held October 11, 2001, it was determined that almost all instruments are in good shape, and the 5 first light instruments plan to be ready on time and within budget.  However, it was determined that FAA certification documentation review provides a significant schedule risk, with the process taking 6+ months per instrument. Subsequent to this review, USRA and Raytheon are more closely tracking the FAA certification process.  The OS intends to pay close attention to progress on the development of the telescope, airplane, and instruments during the crucial three years ahead.

The SOFIA “Data Cycle System” (DCS) was described.  The DCS is an integrated software system including a proposal preparation tool, flight planner, flight scheduler, in-flight “quick look” tool, data archive and data pipeline. The OS was quite pleased to hear of progress in this area, since observing and data processing tools for guest observers has been a deficiency in SOFIA development for some time (as mentioned in many previous OS reports).   On the other hand, considering the scope of the requirements (front-end processing tools - proposal preparation, planing, and scheduling, quick-look data processing, and back-end processing - pipeline calibration, data archiving, and data distribution), the ~4 FTE effort that has been described to us may be inadequate.  SIRTF planning and scheduling tools are being considered for re-use and there are plans to adapt software from other missions such as ISO. These are steps in the right direction, and we suggest that extant pipeline processing environments and archive services might also be refitted for SOFIA’s needs.  In particular, IPAC could be a valuable resource for the project.

In summary, it appears to OS that SOFIA is now making good progress recovering from its earlier technical and financial problems.  The OS intend to monitor the Project’s progress closely with further reports in the next few meetings.

The OS and the OS Roadmapping team will meet in February, on dates to be announced.  We look forward to seeing you at these important upcoming events.

Sincerely,

Alan Dressler, Chair, for the Origins Subcommittee

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