NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope got one last overhaul in May 2009 by NASA astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis and has been sending home stunning photos ever since. Seen here, the iconic space telescope orbits high above Earth, after it was released at the close of the STS-125 servicing mission to once more gaze deep into the universe.
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updated 4/10/2012 1:48:45 PM ET 2012-04-10T17:48:45

Nine NASA-funded astrophysics missions, including the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, will continue scanning the heavens for at least another two to four years, the U.S. space agency announced last week.

NASA’s decision to extend the science operations for nine of its 14 in-orbit missions largely follows the recommendations of an outside panel of senior scientists that convened in late February to weigh the scientific merits of keeping these missions in service.

Senior reviews for operating NASA science missions take place every two years. Scientists are charged with determining which missions are likely to generate the most "science per dollar" if they are approved to continue operating after their primary missions are complete.

The last senior review for operating astrophysics missions, held in 2010, recommended the termination or phase-out of the five lowest-ranked missions, including the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which was finally turned off early last year.

This year’s senior review, chaired by University of Michigan astronomy professor Joel Bregman, opted not to rank the nine astrophysics missions up for review.

"After considerable discussion, the committee concluded that a simple ranking of this sort is not adequate," the committee wrote in its report.

The committee noted that because no major astrophysics missions have been green-lighted after the massively overbudget flagship James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in 2018, much of NASA’s astrophysics research depends on existing missions.

"This reality, along with the challenging fiscal situation facing Federal science agencies, places greater emphasis on utilizing existing missions wisely, as well as finding strategies for reducing costs while not sacrificing the most important capabilities," the committee wrote.

In addition to Kepler and Chandra — which the committee recommended NASA keep in service through 2016 — the other astrophysics missions that have been cleared for continued operations are:

  • the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in 2008.
  • the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), launched in 1990 but last refurbished in 2009.
  • Planck, a European satellite launched in 2009.
  • Suzaku, a Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite launched in 2005.
  • Swift Gamma-ray Burst Mission, launched in 2004.
  • the Warm Spitzer Space Telescope Mission, which has been operating since 2009 without the coolant that kept its infrared instruments chilled for its first five-and-a-half years in orbit.
  • XMM-Newton, a European X-ray observatory launched in 1999.

"These nine missions comprise an extremely strong ensemble to enter the Senior Review process and we find that all are making very significant scientific contributions," wrote the 12-member committee that conducted the 2012 Senior Review of Operating Missions in the NASA Astrophysics Division.

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The committee shot down a proposal to increase Hubble’s funding above its $95 million per year level and urged NASA to find ways to cut costs.

"To keep (Hubble) operating while maintaining the overall balance of NASA’s astrophysics program it will be necessary to seek further cost reductions, even at the expense of some observing efficiency," the committee wrote.

In a short statement posted on the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s website, NASA said that HST operations will continue "at their currently funded levels."

NASA also approved extending Fermi’s operations through 2016 but with a 10 percent per year funding reduction beginning in 2014. Two missions, Suzaku and XMM, were singled out as having "critically low funding." In addition, the Swift mission was characterized as "poorly funded," a less dire circumstance than "critically low," according to the report.

NASA, in response, approved continued support of Suzaku operations until March 2015 to provide a one-year overlap with Japan’s follow-on Astro-H mission. Funding for U.S. support of XMM-Newton was also extended through March 2015 and Swift was approved to continue through 2016 with additional funding for data analysis.

Spitzer’s operations, meanwhile, will continue through 2014 with closeout in 2015, according to the NASA statement.

NASA said that all decisions to continue operations through 2015 and beyond will be revisited during the next senior review in 2014.

This article was provided by Space News, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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