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The era of NASA's large space telescopes may end

The $ 8.9 billion James Webb Space Telescope may be the last large-scale observatory to be commissioned by NASA for a while.

With the proposed White House budget for 2020 the comprehensive infrared field research is stopped Telescope (WFIRST), a 3.2 billion dollar space mission, which is the linchpin of astrophysics research in the 2020s and beyond.

And this budget keeps NASA's funding for astrophysics so low in the coming years that the agency will not be able to develop another ambitious, large flagship observatory for the foreseeable future, experts say.

See also: NASA weighs delay from WFIRST to finance JWST overflow

"If this budget is really the budget, there will be no future flagships," said David Spergel, a theoretical Astrophysicist at Princeton University "We're going to have JWST ̵

1; a wonderful observatory – and that's it," said Jon Morse, who led NASA's Astrophysics Department from 2007-2011. Now he is the CEO of the BoldlyGo Institute, a nonprofit association dedicated to the development of space science missions.

JWST, announced as the successor to NASA's legendary Hubble Space Telescope is said to be in May 2021 after several delays and significant costs.

A grim budget for astrophysics

The federal budget proposal for 2020 presented by the White House last week provides NASA $ 21 billion – about $ 500 million less than that Space Agency this year.

The Agency's science funding was particularly hard hit, dropping from $ 6.9 billion this year to $ 6.3 billion by 2020. Much of the decline has occurred in astrophysics, which from $ 1.19 billion to $ 845 million . (This does not include the $ 353 million awarded to JWST, which has its own funding line next year.)

The funding for astrophysics remains relatively constant in the proposed "out years", ranging from $ 902 million $ 965 million between 2021 and 2024

That's not nearly enough money to sustain a diverse and balanced research portfolio of small, medium, and flagship missions, Morse said.

"With this budget requirement, you can not include a multi-million dollar observatory in your remaining budget," he told Space.com. "That's why they broke Wfirst – they took the money away, there's no money to do a mission that costs three billion dollars for three or three years."

Restoring the flagship capability would at least push the budget of 2020 astrophysics up by $ 400 million – the amount "saved" with the cancellation of WFIRST, Morse said.

A powerful space observatory

WFIRST was classified as the highest priority space mission in the 2010 astronomy / astrophysics decadal survey . Decade surveys, conducted every ten years by the US National Academy of Sciences, serve as research plans for government agencies such as NASA; Your recommendations are usually followed.

WFIRST remains in budget and on schedule for the planned start of the year 2024, Spergel said. The observatory has a main mirror with a width of 2.4 meters, the size of the Hubble. However, WFIRST will have a field of view 100 times larger than Hubble's.

WFIRST will have two scientific instruments that will allow the Observatory to conduct a series of groundbreaking astronomical surveys. For example, astronomers will use WFIRST to characterize the dark energy – the mysterious force behind the accelerated expansion of the universe – as never before, discover thousands of exoplanets and directly represent some alien worlds.

What is Dark Energy?

The widely-measuring WFIRST was also specifically designed to complement JWST, allowing deeper sky disks to be examined more deeply, Morse said.

A WFIRST turnaround would put astronomy on a heavy blow Astrophysics and the scientific enterprise as a whole, he added. And the step backward from big and brave space telescopes, which seems to accuse WFIRST's cancellation, would also threaten the position of the United States as a space science leader, he said, and Spergel.

"If we stop making flagships for astrophysics, we'll stop leading," Spergel told Space.com.

That's because flagships are incredibly productive and influential. Think of Hubble, which was orbited in April 1990. The contributions of this famous space telescope are too numerous for you to be able to rattle here. This includes helping astronomers discover dark energy and making people around the world familiar with the beauty and mystery of the Universe with the most beautiful cosmic photos ever taken.

Hubble is still strong, but there have been some signs of aging lately. NASA's other flagship operational space telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has also long been in vogue; it was launched in 1999.

Everyone hopes that JWST will continue to do great science for many years to come. However, there are no guarantees in this regard, and a naked flagship cabinet after the launch of JWST in 2021 is a depressing prospect for both Spergel and Morse.

Morse relied on the current high energy physics landscape as a warning fairy tale.

The United States had the opportunity to establish itself as a particle physicist in the 1990s with the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas (SSC). However, funding for this project has been withdrawn, and Europe was finally taken over in 2010 with the completion of the Large Hadron Collider (which, although extremely capable, is much less and less strong than the SSC was intended to do).

"Are we going on astrophysics after starting JWST?" Morse said.

Not carved in stone

But there is still hope for WFIRST and future flagships that could follow in his footsteps. The requirement of the federal budget of 2020 is precisely this demand. A decided budget must be approved by Congress, and Congress has already campaigned for WFIRST.

In fact, the White House cut the mission's budget for 2019, but Congress entered and restored funding.

Both Spergel and Morse would love it if the story were repeated.

"Congress had strong bipartisan support for astrophysics," Spergel said. "I hope that these cuts in astrophysics will be lifted."

Mike Wall's book on the Quest for Extraterrestrial Life " Out There " (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by [19659039] Karl Tate ) is now out. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall . Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook .

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