Saturday, March 15, 2014

USAmerikaner Exceptionalism BRDeutscher Unhappiness

About a week or so ago, NASA announced it was not going to fund the SOFIA project beyond 2015.  SOFIA is an IR telescope that flies on a stubby 747 in order to limit absorption from water vapor.  The program was initiated in 1996, and has taken a long time, with many hitch hikers along the way, and with many developments in IR astronomy, both ground based and in space.  There are technical arguments to be made in favor of continuing and arguments in favor of mothballing the thing, but NASA clearly places a low priority on SOFIA at this point

Due to its high annual operating cost, the Administration greatly reduces funding for the StratosphericObservatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) project. SOFIA has encountered technical and schedule challenges, and while the observatory will address emerging scientific questions, its contributions to astronomical science will be significantly less than originally envisioned. Funding for SOFIA, which costs almost $80 million per year to operate, can have a larger impact supporting other science missions. NASA will work with current partner Germany and potential partners to identify a path forward for SOFIA with greatly reduced NASA funding. Unless partners are able to support the U.S. portion of SOFIA costs, NASA will place the aircraft into storage by FY 2015. (NASA budget pp Astro-16)
Clearly SOFIA is but roadkill in the path of the ever more expensive James Webb Space Telescope
Additionally, the James Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2018, will provide data at mid-infrared wavelengths, partially mitigating the absence of SOFIA.
However, SOFIA is a joint project with the DLR (German Air and Space Center) support and a lot of participation.  The Germans are not happy.  Jan Wörner, the Chair of the DLR executive board has a blog and he unsheathed the sword two days ago
Since 2007 a modified B747 SP jumbo jet has been flying with a sensitive telescope on board to peer deeply into the depths of space.  This flying observatory is a joint activity of the American space agency NASA and the German Center for Air and Space Exploration (DLR).  In the course of establishing its current budget NASA has announced in Washington that the project can not be financed beyond 2015. That is not only a bitter pill for science, because many interesting astronomical investigations were planned, but also for the relationship between NASA and the DLR.

In 1966 NASA and the DLR agreed tostart the joint project SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatorium for Infrared Astronomy oder Stratosphären-Observatorium für Infrarot-Astronomie).  A short version of a jumbo jet would have to be modified to fit.  As the work on the project went forward according to the agreement, in 2006 the Americans suddenly announced a halt.  The project was only continued after massive intervention from Germany through my predecessor in office, Prof. Wittig, with the maiden flight taking place in 2007.  Scheduled flights with appropriate scientific objectives now regularly take place.  (n.b. this is a bit of a stretch, SOFIA only went operational about a year ago after a long testing period.  See comments at NASA Watch and below)  The plane serves not only as a flying observatory but at the same time also for training.  In addition the basic design allows for different scientific instruments to be installed to investigate specific issues.  Germany provides 20% of the operational costs from its national space program.

So far, so good. Suddenly, about a week ago, news reached me that NASA could not continue to fund the project because of budgetary issues.  A few days later the official notification arrived.  Ever since then the telephone wires have been running hot (OK takes a while for the language to catch up -ER) in order to find a way to continue.  With all possible sympathy for financial limitations, it is impossible to understand how, "over night", bilateral projects can be placed at risk.  We already have had this experience with the X38 Space Plane and the ESA EXOMARS projects.  In the case of SOFIA this announcement endangers a scientific program with far reaching implications.  Therefire we are searching intensively for a solution.  In further talks with the American side various options are being discussed.  Until not we have always behaved as "model children" in holding to joint project.agreements.and even in some cases covering for others for a limited time, as in the case of the International Space Station ISS.  If partners place their solidarity and reliability into question it may be necessary to redefine the German position.  As before, I see a great value in international cooperation, but that must be supported by exceptional trust. (Emphasis added - ER)
Make no mistake about this, SOFIA is a flagship project for German astronomy and the DLR ain't gonna give it up without a fight, no more than NASA would give up the James Webb Space Telescope.  They too have the ability to reprogram funds headed for projects NASA has more of an interest in.  Most to the point, they are key members of the European Space Agency, and the Webb is scheduled to be launched in 2018 on an Arianne 5.  This is hardball bunnies.

As to whether SOFIA is worth continuing, well, the budget document pretty well summarizes where SOFIA is and why NASA wants to kill it.  In 2014 
SOFIA has completed science cycle 1 and has initiated science cycle 2. The operations team continues to implement Observatory performance upgrades, and aircraft and telescope heavy maintenance will begin in June 2014. Instrument commissioning activities continue and SOFIA is expected to achieve full operational capability. In 2014 NASA will initiate discussions with current partner Germany and potential partners to identify a path forward for SOFIA with greatly reduced NASA funding.
pretty well summed up by Rocky J's comment at NASA Watch
SOFIA's fate is not unlike that of SLS and Orion. Numerous delays lead to a project life-cycle that ran from 1996 to 2010, fourteen years. Total cost rose as a result, too. But it is one of a kind, state of the art. It just took too long. Present and upcoming space-based infrared scopes and the latest sensors have marginalized its performance. And when one considers the cost of maintaining flight readiness and flying, it is hard to justify continued operations.

It is a _beautiful_ engineering feat and the designers should be proud of their accomplishments. This is a Mount Wilson (Hooker reflector) sized mirror (2.5 m, 98 inches) for infrared that flies at over 40,000 feet, peering out the side of a Boeing 747 with precision guidance. Truly amazing. One can arguably say the same for SLS and Orion (can we?), i.e. trying to justify their completion in light of protracted development, cost to complete, to maintain flight readiness and lack of reusability and now commercial alternatives on the scene.

One of the contrasting features of SOFIA that is testimony to its lengthy development is that the on board instrument control systems, the computers are based on Sun Solaris and software from the late-90s. There is upgrading but the question is now whether the cost can be shared with more partners to continue flying. There is demand for SOFIA because the demand for telescope/instrument time is so high across all of the field of astronomy.
Eli expects that a certain JM may have some comments on the last paragraph and the conversation at the NASA Watch update is interestion


John Mashey said...

"computers are based on Sun Solaris and software from the late-90s. There is upgrading but the question is now whether the cost can be shared..."

No problem, suppose they had been small VAXen running VAX/VMS from the late 1980s. :-)

More seriously, embedded computer systems for instrument control are different from general-purpose systems and especially thsoe used for research computation (where more is never enough).

a) IF the original systems were adequately engineered and had enough performance
b) AND IF the software was reasonably modern and widely-used
c) AND IF there are enough spares and/or there was enough volume in the first place OR IF there are easily-available upward-compatible newer replacements

THEN this is not a major problem compared to other operational costs.

Embedded systems often have long lives, and i they work, people don't and shouldn't mess with them.

Knowing just what Eli wrote:
a) One can only assume performance was adequate.

b) Solaris on Sun SPARC chips was a widely-used UNIX variant, and generally UNIXes are way more similar than more proprietary systems.

c) I don't know if they bought enough spares, but I doubt there would be a problem buying up used systems. At the Computer History Museum our curators are often offered old computers people have in their garages. Some actually have old minisupers, but once computers switched to microprocessors decades ago, the volumes went up, and there are way more than we could keep, even from the 1980s.

However, bunnies who happen to have kept even part of a 1960s Burroughs B5000 or B5500 in their garage are urged to contact the Museum immediately.

Finally, for fun, bunnies might read about the Apollo Guidance Computer, developed in early 1960s, running ~ 2MHz with ~4KB of RAM and ~72KB of ROM for code, not a high-volume product. Fortunately, last mission was ~1972.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Eli, DLR can't possibly screw NASA worse than NASA is screwing itself. Quite honestly I believe NASA is an institution in need of termination.

Hank Roberts said...

The idiots are out to discontinue everything that's not directly profitable for their private masters, that's what the 'sequester' is about. Remember, starve the government? That's their platform.
The U.S. House of Representatives Declares War on Wildlife and the Environment

Russell Seitz said...

This big bird is the bright side of Star Wars spindown-- DARPA's HEL laser pointer-tracker wedded to atmospheric bloome beating adaptive seriously and a chasis lightweighted to recon satellite standards but stiff as a carbon fiber surfboard

Tres cool.

Anonymous said...

Make a hole in the bottom of the Jumbo, point the telescope downwards and let's do some serious airborne remote sensing with it.

Atmospheric absorption? Just fly really low.