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NASA reviews nine astrophysics missions, loves 'em all

Kepler, Swift, Fermi, Spitzer extended – 'There are no clunkers here'

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NASA has published its biannual Senior Review of Operating Missions, and the news is good for space-science buffs: all nine missions reviewed will receive continued funding, including the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, which are identified as "the two most important missions in this Senior Review."

Chandra and the HST will be funded over the next two years to the tune of $50m to $100m per year. The next highest rated mission, the Review concluded, is the habitable-planet searcher Kepler, followed by the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope and the Warm Spitzer infrared mission. These three missions will receive yearly support from between $15m and $50m each.

The Swift probe – which NASA catagorizes as an "Explorer Class" effort, ranks next in importance. The Review notes that "Its range of applications continues to grow" and that its "ability to respond to a wide range of different transient events has led to a steady stream of unanticipated scientific achievements." Over the next two years, Swift will receive between $5m and $15m per year.

The final class of efforts that the Review, well, reviews, are NASA's collaborative efforts with the European Space Agency and Japan – bargains for NASA, seeing as how collaboration requires only "relatively modest contributions and at very low ongoing costs." Very low, in this context, means from between $1m to $7m per year.

The two ESA efforts, the Planck microwave and XMM-Newton X-Ray observatories, were ranked slightly higher than the Japanese Suzaku X-ray astronomy mission, the report notes, but it praises the joint effort of that country's Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the US as being "much less expensive" than participation in the ESA efforts, and notes that the scientific programs of all three collaborations are quite strong.

"There are no 'clunkers' in the group," the Review concludes. "This is a strong suite of missions making excellent progress on a wide range of scientific issues. They are all fully deserving of NASA support."

Some of the missions received support for extended lives. Mission operations for Swift and Kepler, for example, were extended through fiscal 2016 with funding for data analysis, Planck's sky-mapping Low Frequency Instrument gets a one-year extension, Fermi's operations are extended through fiscal 2016, and Spitzer's work will continue through fiscal 2014, with closeout scheduled for fiscal 2015.

A detailed accounting of each mission's strengths and weaknesses, lifecycles and extensions, can be found here, along with details of how the rankings were determined. ®

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