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NASA is planning to launch an astrophysics probe program

By unveiling plans for the new line of missions and establishing the basis for future huge space telescopes, NASA is beginning to put the suggestions of the astrophysics decadal review into action.

The agency announced it will proceed with a line of “probe” class operations intended to bridge the gap between the large flagship missions and the smaller Explorer-class spacecraft during an online town hall meeting on January 11, which was originally scheduled to be held at the American Astronomical Society convention before that conference was canceled due to the pandemic.

For a long time, NASA had been investigating probe-class astrophysics missions with a $1 billion budget cap. These missions are similar to NASA’s New Frontiers planetary research missions, which have similar expenditures and are confined to a few possible destinations for each competition.

Astro2020, the most recent astrophysics decadal survey, published in November, approved work on probe-class missions. It did, however, advocate a $1.5 billion cost cap for each mission, citing concept studies of prospective probe-class missions produced to support the decadal difficulty to fit under a $1 billion budget.

The $1 billion cap doesn’t really cover the cost of the deployment, international donations, or observer programs after the project is operating, according to Paul Hertz, who is the director in charge of the NASA’s astrophysics division, who spoke at the town hall. “When you add all of that in, plus the reserves maintained by headquarters, the total mission expenditure will be around the $1.5 billion estimated by the decadal review,” he said.

On January 11, NASA made a “community announcement” formally announcing its intention to undertake the mission. The preliminary announcement of opportunity (AO) for the first probe competition will be announced in June, accompanied by the definitive AO in January 2023, according to the notice. Proposals in response to the AO are due 90 days after the AO is issued.

In early 2024, NASA plans to choose two or three bids for Phase A concept studies, each worth $5 million. Late that year, those proposals were going to be due, and the winning mission would be chosen in the middle of the year 2025.

For the first probe competition, NASA will only accept ideas for one of the two concepts: a far-infrared imaging and spectroscopic space telescope or an X-ray mission to complement Athena, which is a European Space Agency X-ray telescope set to fly in the mid-2030s. According to Hertz, the decadal survey suggested those two concepts.

According to Hertz, NASA plans to launch one astrophysics probe project every ten years, a pace limited by the total astrophysics program’s budget. “I’d like to move faster,” he expressed his desire. “NASA would surely be open to that if the astrophysics budget expands quickly enough to cover the decadal survey’s suggestions as well as an expanded probe cadence.”

The probe missions will also assist bridge the gap in flagship missions between the recently deployed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Roman Space Telescope, which is set to launch in mid-2027, and the decadal survey’s recommended series of flagship missions. According to the decadal, the first of these prospective flagship missions, a massive ultraviolet, optical, and infrared observatory, might deploy in the early 2040s. X-ray and Far-infrared observatories would come after that.

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