Following the Trump administration's recent budget proposal to reduce NASA’s astrophysics funding and completely cancel WFIRST, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, scientists from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) are voicing their concerns.
“We cannot accept termination of WFIRST, which was the highest-priority space-astronomy mission in the most recent decadal survey,” said AAS President-Elect Megan Donahue in a statement. “And the proposed 10 percent reduction in NASA’s astrophysics budget, amounting to nearly $1 billion over the next five years, will cripple US astronomy.”
This is bad news for Americans enjoying the country’s status as the world leader in space research. As part of its budget plans, the government also recently announced its proposal to terminate federal funding of the International Space Station (ISS), with the vision that private companies will take over and foot the bill. However, these companies aren’t exactly on board.
And now it seems that WFIRST, a revolutionary new telescope planned to take over from the Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will lose its funding too. WFIRST would be 100 times more powerful than Hubble, with a focal plane 200 time larger than the JWST. Launching in the mid-2020s, it would survey faraway galaxies to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.
Without WFIRST, the US will have no large space telescope to succeed Hubble and the JWST, leaving astrophysical research rather in the dark.
"Abandoning WFIRST is abandoning US leadership in dark energy and exoplanets,” WFIRST science team co-chair David Spergel tweeted earlier this week.
“Not only is WFIRST a top decadal-survey priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the mission has also undergone rigorous community, agency, and Congressional assessment and oversight and meets the high expectations of an astrophysics flagship,” stated AAS Executive Officer Kevin B. Marvel.
WFIRST has been heavily scrutinized by many review panels, with the conclusion that it won’t go beyond its budget and will greatly advance the field of astrophysical research, yet Trump’s administration wants to cancel it and redirect funding towards "completed" missions.
However, there is still some hope that Congress might ignore the decision.
Astronomers are worried that a decline in federal investment in space exploration and astrophysical research could affect many future surveys and harm important community-based scientific processes.
“These efforts to achieve community consensus on research priorities are vital to ensuring the maximum return on public and private investments in the astronomical sciences,” said Marvel. “The cancellation of WFIRST would set a dangerous precedent and severely weaken a decadal-survey process that has established collective scientific priorities for a world-leading program for a half century.
“Such a move would also sacrifice US leadership in space-based dark energy, exoplanet, and survey astrophysics. We cannot allow such drastic damage to the field of astronomy, the impacts of which would be felt for more than a generation.”