Congressional language changes plans for NASA’s Observatory for Habitable Worlds

WASHINGTON – Congressional language seeking to speed up work on NASA’s future space telescope has the side effect of forcing the agency to disband a team it created to lead the mission’s early development.

Last year, NASA established two committees to support early development of the Habitable Worlds Observatory, a large space telescope recommended by the decadal Astro2020 survey that is not expected to launch before the early 2040s.

One, the Technical Assessment Group (TAG), includes NASA personnel working on the design and key technologies for the spacecraft. The second, the Science, Technology and Architecture Review Team (START), primarily includes representatives from academia and industry to develop science objectives and instrument requirements for the mission.

The two groups began work last fall, but at the committee’s third joint meeting June 3 in Baltimore, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said their efforts were complicated by language in the fiscal year 2024 omnibus spending bill that was adopted in March. A report accompanying the bill directed NASA to spend at least $10 million on the Habitable Worlds Observatory this year, as well as to establish a project office for it at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

«This was a surprise,» he said of the office’s direction. «We had to think a little bit about how to put that into a plan that we can move forward with.»

While the provisions show Congress’ strong interest in the mission, he said they also have «flaws,» particularly reorganizing how NASA intended to manage the observatory’s early development.

NASA created START with language requiring it to be dissolved when the project office is established, a provision intended to reduce conflicts of interest for future calls for input from industry and science teams. Clampin said the provision will be enforced even with the earlier-than-expected establishment of a project office.

«After consulting with the legal team of the Head Office, we have come to the conclusion that we must dissolve START immediately,» he said. «We are required to do this because of all the legal issues surrounding future conflicts.»

It won’t affect, he said, the volunteer working groups that have been associated with START that examine the scientific case for the observatory. «We don’t want to lose all the work that the task forces are doing,» he said. Those efforts will continue, reporting directly to the project office, although Clampin said industry representatives on those working groups will have to step back to ease conflicts.

NASA is in the process of setting up a Habitable Worlds Observatory project office at Goddard, with the goal of having it in place by the end of the fiscal year in September. «It attracts a lot of attention. We get a lot of «are we there yet?» calls from the Hill,» he said.

The early establishment of the project office will not affect the overall plan of the observatory, including the initial focus on maturing the technology required for it before the official start of its development. “Don’t think this is a big change in approach or strategy. It’s not,” Clampin said.

This approach includes funding work on these key technologies. On May 31, NASA announced that it had awarded three contracts worth a total of $17.5 million to BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to work on concepts such as «ultrastable» optics and a baffle for the telescope.

Clampin added that the direction to establish an observatory project office at Goddard does not mean that other NASA centers will be excluded from working on the mission. «This is the direction we got from Congress and so we have to follow that, but we expect this to continue to be a very broad, diverse and inclusive program.»

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *