NASA Chooses Ultraviolet Astronomy Mission, Postpones Launch by Two Years

NASA has chosen the Ultraviolet Explorer (UVEX) spacecraft for its next astrophysics Medium-class Explorer mission, but the launch has been postponed by two years due to budget constraints. The UVEX, which will conduct a comprehensive sky survey at ultraviolet wavelengths, can identify the ultraviolet sources of high-energy events such as neutron star mergers that produce gravitational wave bursts. The mission, valued at $300 million, is spearheaded by Caltech astronomer Fiona Harrison and includes partners from the University of California at Berkeley, Northrop Grumman, and the Space Dynamics Laboratory.

The UVEX was initially slated for a 2028 launch when it was selected along with the Survey and Time-domain Astrophysical Research Explorer (STAR-X) mission in August 2022 for further study. The delay to 2030 is due to budgetary issues within NASA’s broader astrophysics program. This extension to the mission’s Phase B, which covers initial design and a preliminary design review, will enable NASA to prioritize other ongoing missions, while still supporting the innovative UVEX concept.

Additionally, NASA had selected two other projects, the Moon Burst Energetics All-sky Monitor (MoonBEAM) and A Large Area burst Polarimeter (LEAP), as missions of opportunity. These were less expensive alternatives that often involve deploying a payload on another spacecraft or the International Space Station. However, due to budget pressures, neither mission was chosen for development.

NASA officials have previously warned of budget pressures on the agency, including its astrophysics programs. In October, Mark Clampin, current director of the agency’s astrophysics division, suggested that budgets for the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory might be cut due to anticipated funding levels for fiscal year 2024. Despite these challenges, NASA continues to prioritize missions in their prime operations phases and early-stage flagship telescope projects, ensuring a balanced portfolio across astrophysics.

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