Saturday, April 16, 2011

IXO is dead, long live ATHENA

IXO and LISA are dead as joint NASA/ESA missions, thanks to NASA funding woes and JWST's grotesque cost and time overruns. Nevertheless, ESA will go ahead with a smaller (800 million Euro) X-ray Observatory concept with limited NASA participation (the microcalorimeter, I hope?) called ATHENA... a nice naming joke I didn't get at first. A few years ago ESA's XEUS mission concept and NASA's Constellation-X mission concept merged to form the International X-ray Observatory (IXO). Now the Europeans are back alone ATHENA springs forth, as in Greek myth where Athena emerged from Zeus's forehead.

News from the IXO website.

An update on IXO from Nick White and Jay Bookbinder

US IXO Team,

This is an update on the discussions with the European Space Agency (ESA) at the recent ESA-NASA bilateral meeting. This was reported by Jon Morse (HQ Astrophysics Division Director), first, to the IXO and LISA teams on Tuesday, and then, at the Astrophysics NASA Advisory Committee (NAC) sub-committee meeting on Thursday afternoon.

IXO was one of three candidates competing for the L1 opportunity in ESA´s Cosmic Vision Program (2015-2025). The Astrophysics and Planetary decadal rankings and NASA´s constrained out-year resources projected in the President's FY12 budget request led ESA to conclude that none of the three mission concepts were feasible within the Cosmic Vision L1 schedule. Consequently, ESA has ended consideration of IXO and the other concepts as partnerships at the scale proposed in the New Worlds New Horizons decadal survey (NWNH) and EJSM/Laplace in Visions and Voyages for Planetary Science. Instead, ESA has begun a rapid definition effort that includes the formation of a new science team (to be announced shortly). That effort will identify science goals and a mission concept that can be implemented as part of an ESA-led mission launching in the early 2020´s for a cost to ESA of about 800M Euro. Revised mission concepts from the three science areas will be considered in a selection process tentatively foreseen in February 2012.

A future minor role for NASA in the new ESA-led X-ray mission, in particular contributions at the instrument level, has not been ruled out. NASA will participate in the new ESA science team through a "NASA HQ-empowered scientist." This will be a NASA civil servant scientist who will be the conduit for any engagement with the new ESA team.

Currently the decadal survey recommendations are centered on the IXO (and LISA) concept and partnerships. NASA HQ will NOT disband the current NASA IXO (and LISA) teams immediately, but will follow a deliberate path towards redirecting the NASA efforts in the context of the decadal survey recommendations. NASA's Astrophysics Division plans to continue base funding (assuming not-larger-than-anticipated cuts from Congress) for the IXO (and LISA) study team(s) through FY11 to continue the technology development and so that NASA can support any effort requested by ESA through the NASA representative. The HQ Astrophysics Division may at some point in the future engage the community about strategic investments in X-ray astrophysics and possible solicitations for new concept studies in the context of the NWNH priorities.

It is expected that in about one year´s time NASA will ask the NRC to prioritize possible NWNH investments for the rest of the decade, including funding possible NASA participation in an ESA L1 mission – which we hope will be the X-ray mission. This would be in the context of not only the ESA L1 mission selection, but also the M1 and M2 mission selections, and the JWST re-plan.

We plan to keep in communication with the US IXO team as this unfolds. And seek input from the community at the appropriate times.

Feel free to forward this note to all interested parties.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Nick White,

Jay Bookbinder

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