Published online 15 January 2008 | Nature 451, 228-229 (2007) | doi:10.1038/451228a

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Funding edict for mission has NASA over a barrel

Planet-hunting telescope cost could hold back other space projects.

Congress wants to spend more on the Space Interferometry Mission than NASA does.Congress wants to spend more on the Space Interferometry Mission than NASA does.

Astronomers in the United States are up in arms after Congress told NASA that it must spend $60 million next year building a controversial planet-hunting telescope. NASA says the money, nearly three times the $22 million it had earmarked for the project, will have to be siphoned from the budgets of other missions.

"I hope this is what you want," an inflamed Mike Griffin told the community, "because it appears likely to be what you will get." Griffin, the NASA administrator, was speaking on 8 January at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. With the agency forced to beef up its financial commitment to the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), there may be a two-year delay to Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). And other future flagship missions to study dark energy, gravity waves and X-ray astronomy might be cancelled altogether, warns Jon Morse, director of the agency's astrophysics division.

The rise, fall, and now rise again of SIM reflects the ongoing debate over the best way to search for an Earth-like planet beyond our Solar System. Earlier versions of SIM were nominated in 1990 and 2000 in community assessments of astronomy priorities, but some wonder how the mission should be re-evaluated as the next decade's priorities are set. And the unusual involvement of Congress only complicates matters. "Congress does not dream up such direction on its own," Griffin points out. "Clearly, external advocacy for SIM has been successful."

Such advocacy is not a secret; nearly all major research institutions have a presence on Capitol Hill. SIM is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which, as a NASA research centre, is forbidden from directly lobbying Congress. But the lab's operator, the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena, can. It has previously employed Washington-based Lewis-Burke Associates to lobby for it.

“Congress is not willing to take a back seat on this.”


Certainly, someone was able to bend the ear of Adam Schiff, a Democrat who represents Pasadena in the House of Representatives. Schiff is on the subcommittee responsible for funding NASA, and he was instrumental in pushing through the language specifying $60 million for SIM, saying the project is too important scientifically for NASA to kill it. "Congress is not willing to take a back seat on this," Schiff says.

SIM's goal is to find planets by using interferometry, which analyses combined waves of light from multiple telescopes. With a 9- metre separation between two telescopes, SIM would make measurements so precisely that it could detect an Earth-mass planet orbiting a Sun-like star at the Earth-Sun distance, as long as the star was within about a dozen light years of Earth.

SIM is by now the result of several generations of discussions about how best to fly an interferometer in space. NASA has been testing the necessary technologies since 1996, but in the meantime several other planet-hunting missions have

moved forward - including France's COROT, which looks for planets passing in front of their stars; NASA's Kepler misson, to launch in February 2009, using the same method; and Europe's interferometry mission Gaia, which aims to launch in 2012. NASA also has a mission called Terrestrial Planet Finder on the back burner, which Kepler and SIM would theoretically pave the way for. An upcoming NASA task-force report on the best way to look for extrasolar planets will recommend a mission such as SIM as a priority.

NASA’s Mike Griffin will have to reprioritize.NASA’s Mike Griffin will have to reprioritize.

But the costs for SIM have escalated. In 2001, JPL thought SIM could be built and launched for $600 million. But by the end of 2007, nearly that much had already been spent without any building having started. The current best estimate for the remaining mission cost is $1.85 billion. Realizing that launching the JWST and servicing Hubble could consume the astrophysics budget by themselves, NASA in 2007 began the process of putting SIM into hibernation. Last year, just $31 million was spent on the programme, compared with $117 million the year before.

SIM's chances of salvation may lie in reinventing itself at a much smaller size. At the Austin meeting, SIM scientists discussed a scaled-down version they are calling SIM Lite that would separate its telescopes by 6 metres rather than 9 metres. This would mean a 35% reduction in the weight of the scope, and hence a cheaper launch. Additionally, SIM Lite would dramatically scale down one of its guide interferometers to reduce complexity and save cost. Full cost estimates have not been made yet for SIM Lite, but project scientist Mike Shao of JPL says it might be of the order of $1 billion.

That, however, may not be enough to make it at NASA. Morse says there may be money available for only a medium-class mission costing $600 million-$700 million and, moreover, the agency wants SIM to compete for it along with other proposed missions. Alan Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, says a 6-metre SIM Lite "can still do great science". But there are compromises: instead of studying 130 nearby stars for evidence of Earth-like planets, SIM Lite would be able to study only 65, and also gather data at a much lower rate.

For now, it is unclear what will happen to the $60 million allocated to SIM for the 2008 fiscal year. The language in the congressional bill specifically says it must be used for SIM - it cannot be spent on SIM Lite, Morse explains.

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SIM's story shows how such congressionally directed spending can foul up agencies' best-laid plans, claims James Savage, who studies academic 'pork-barrelling' - the designation of public funds for use in a politician's home district - at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The SIM money is not, strictly speaking, an 'earmark', a line item in the budget for an unrequested project. But Savage says a rising tide of scientific lobbying for specific projects has thwarted more general advocacy efforts to boost science funding as a whole.

In the 1980s, there were just a few big research institutions that had Washington offices, Savage says. Now, many hundreds of colleges have offices or hire lobbyists. The money these lobbyists reel in has risen, too. In the 2008 spending bills, there were 2,500 research and development earmarks worth $4.5 billion, according to an analysis by Kei Koizumi at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Griffin was himself effectively lobbying when he talked about the consequences of funding SIM, Boss says, knowing that the astronomy community would not want to sacrifice a mission such as the JWST for SIM. And so, at the Austin conference, SIM supporters responded with their own lobbying - wearing electronic lapel pins that flashed: 'Go SIM Go!' and 'Support SIM!'. 

See editorial, page 223

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