NASA and JAXA to Maintain XRISM Operations Despite Instrumental Setback

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on May 14, 2024 09:23
NASA and JAXA to Maintain XRISM Operations Despite Instrumental Setback

NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA plan to persist in operating an instrument on an X-ray astronomy satellite for at least the next year and a half, despite encountering a difficulty with one of its instruments.

NASA and JAXA's XRISM Mission: Overcoming Challenges to Continue X-ray Astronomy

In September 2023, JAXA launched the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM), and the spacecraft's sensors, designed in partnership with NASA, have begun their primary science mission. XRISM is equipped with two instruments for X-ray astronomy.

In January, project scientists reported that XRISM was functioning properly with the exception of an aperture door, also known as a gate valve, for the Dewar on its imaging equipment, Resolve, which failed to open. The apparatus can still operate with the door closed; however, the door, composed of beryllium, does attenuate certain X-rays at lower energies.

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At the time, efforts were made to open the gate valve. However, during a May 7 meeting of the National Academies' Board on Physics and Astronomy, Mark Clampin, director of NASA's astrophysics division, stated that those activities would be put on hold for the next year and a half.

“We decided that the best course of action right now is to move forward with the science program for the next 18 months,” he said, saying that the instrument is still doing “really great science” despite the valve being stuck in place. “We believe that the best approach is to spend the next 18 months collecting science data with this mission before another attempt is made to try to dislodge the gate valve.”

The valve was supposed to be moved out of the way through two non-explosive actuators. “We believe, based on the information that we have been given by the Japanese, that there is probably a snag on a harness attached to one of the non-explosive actuators, which is preventing the valve from moving out of the way.”

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One reason for the delay, he explained, is the difficulty of working with the harness at cryogenic temperatures. The potential harness solutions, he said, include controlling the temperature of a portion of the sensor and introducing “some kind of perturbation” into it in order to shake the harness loose. “We believe right now the lowest-risk approach is to continue getting science, and we'll come back to the gate valve in 18 months.”

NSF Astronomy Budget Issues

Clampin briefly mentioned budget difficulties in his presentation, including plans to consider changes to the functioning of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope to minimize expenses. Those efforts are ongoing, he stated, with no significant information on their status.

NASA isn't the only organization having trouble funding large astronomy programs. Later in the board meeting, R. Chris Smith, interim director of the National Science Foundation's astronomical sciences division, announced that the agency had just decided to cease work on a significant ground-based astrophysics project.

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The project, known as CMB-S4, aimed to build an observatory in the South Pole to investigate the cosmic microwave background, a signature of the Big Bang at microwave wavelengths, in order to better comprehend the universe's early history, as well as dark matter and energy. It was ranked as one of the top priorities for ground-based facilities in both the Astro2020 decadal assessment and a separate review of particle-physics priorities.

Smith announced during the board meeting that NSF had opted not to take CMB-S4 into the next phase of development, known as Major Facility Design Stage, at this time. He emphasized the necessity for NSF to make investment in overall infrastructure in the South Pole.

“The agency must prioritize the recapitalization of the critical infrastructure at the South Pole,” he stated. That effort, he said, would support a wide spectrum of science done at the South Pole, not just astrophysics, and that CMB-S4 may proceed at a later, unspecified date.

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The agency's funding has a role in this decision. The NSF requested $11.3 billion for fiscal year 2024 but received less than $9.1 billion. Smith stated that NSF is still developing an operating plan for 2024, with no details on how it will affect activities at its many divisions, including astronomical sciences.

This also has an impact on how the NSF addresses the highest ground-based astronomical priority in Astro2020, which is support for the United States Extremely Large Telescope (US-ELT) project.

That would give funds for two huge telescopes now in development: the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Giant Magellan Telescope. The NSF would partially fund both telescopes and receive a share of the observing time that would be made available to the larger astrophysics community.

In March, the NSF revealed that the National Science Board had proposed that the NSF sponsor only one of the two telescopes, with a $1.6 billion budget. This occurred at the same time as the report accompanying the final fiscal year 2024 spending bill had wording that “strongly encourages” the NSF to support both US-ELT telescopes.

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Smith stated at the board meeting that on May 2, the NSF formally began the process of deciding which of the two large telescope projects to pursue. Sethuraman Panchanathan, the director of the National Science Foundation, has formally authorized the organization to launch an external evaluation that will advise him on whether to sponsor either telescope.

That assessment will look at GMT and TMT's progress since their preliminary design evaluations, as well as how they're minimizing various risks. The evaluation will also look at how moving forward with either telescope might impact total NSF resources.

Smith stated that the review is expected to be finished by September, but did not specify when NSF will formally select one of the telescope projects for agency assistance.

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