Trump’s 2019 budget proposal doesn't have much good news for science in general, but it has some particularly sad news for NASA. The White House has announced it is not going to continue to fund the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2024, instead suggesting that private companies could step in. Meanwhile, the proposal suggests canceling NASA’s new infrared telescope, WFIRST.
“Given competing priorities at NASA, and budget constraints, developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the administration," states the proposal. "The Budget proposes to terminate WFIRST and redirect existing funds to other priorities of the science community, including completed astrophysics missions and research.”
While many telescopes have similar specs and goals, when it comes to space observatories astronomers are always looking for the best new instrument to complement what is already up there. While both the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and WFIRST have keen infrared eyes, the latter has a focal plane 200 times larger than the former. This would have allowed for a large field of view complemented by zoom-in images from the JWST.
But WFIRST wasn’t just going to be a sidekick. Its goal was extremely ambitious. By mapping the position and distance of a huge number of faraway galaxies, the telescope could have provided us with incredible data to answer questions about the true nature of dark energy. It would have also helped in our search for planets beyond the solar system.
“WFIRST is the top priority of the US decadal survey and has been endorsed in its current form by two NASA reviews and has just been modified to fit within recommendations of independent review," co-chair of the WFIRST science team David Spergel, from Princeton University, said in a tweet on Monday. "Abandoning WFIRST is abandoning US leadership in dark energy and exoplanets.”
So is it all over for WFIRST? Not exactly. The telescope still has its 2018 budget, so researchers will continue to work on it at least for this year. Its future is now in the hands of Congress. The White House’s budget proposal for WFIRST has always been quite conservative in the past and has always been increased by Congress. So many hope that it will continue to be funded.
This is not the first financial woe of this mission. NASA officials have pointed out in recent months that WFIRST was 12 percent over budget and the agency had requested a reduction in its scope and complexity. This is the review Spergel was referring to when he mentioned that the mission has been modified. However, it is unclear how much this will affect the final decision to fund this ambitious project.