The Government Shutdown Is Taking a Toll on Space Science

ALMA
The Milky Way shimmers above a group of radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile.
(Image: © Babak Tafreshi/ESO)

SEATTLE — While the partial government shutdown has left thousands of workers without a paycheck, it is also taking a toll on the space science community. Research projects are put on hold while observatories get ready to close down. And NASA's famous Hubble Space Telescope has suffered a mechanical problem that only furloughed NASA employees can repair.

Here at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the largest annual gathering of astronomers and astrophysicists in the country, the government shutdown has barred hundreds of employees of NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) from giving talks, presenting new science results and even attending the conference voluntarily. Several events had to be canceled, while many NASA scientists have had to rely on partners outside of NASA to give their presentations in their absence.

Meanwhile, telescope facilities that have so far remained open during the shutdown will soon run out of money and cease operations. This includes the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), a federally funded organization that operates the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the Green Bank Telescope and the Very Large Array (VLA).

NRAO officials at the AAS conference said that their telescope facilities have enough funding left over from before the shutdown to operate at least through the end of January, if not mid-February. If the government shutdown does not end before then, the facilities will have to shut down, too.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), aka the "flying telescope," has ceased operations since the shutdown. The telescope, which is mounted to the fuselage of a Boeing 747 aircraft, hasn't flown since the shutdown began. NASA planned to bring SOFIA to Seattle to offer tours at the AAS meeting, but those tours were canceled in SOFIA's absence. NASA officials also planned to make a big announcement this week about new upgrades coming to SOFIA, but that announcement has been postponed due to the shutdown.

Astronomers who wrote competitive proposals to be able to use SOFIA "are going to suffer" from having their research put on hold, Harold Yorke, the director of SOFIA science operations at the Universities Space Research Association, said during a town-hall meeting here on Tuesday (Jan. 8).

After the shutdown ends, it will take about a week to get SOFIA up and running again, Yorke said. Then SOFIA's operators will need to figure out how to make up for all the lost time. If NRAO ends up shutting down its telescopes, more astronomers will be in the same boat.

Two NASA town halls were canceled at AAS. NASA's main town-hall meeting on Monday (Jan. 7) was initially replaced by a Department of Energy town hall, but that event ended up being canceled as well. A town-hall meeting about the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2021, was also canceled because of the the government shutdown.

However, that "definitely does not mean work is not progressing on JWST," Ken Sembach, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), said during a meeting here at AAS. JWST has been undergoing hardware testing and is now in a "clean room" at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California. Northrop Grumman was contracted by NASA to build the telescope, and they can continue to work on it while most of NASA is on furlough.

JWST was built as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still functional despite being on its last legs after 29 years in orbit. Like NRAO's forward-funded facilities, Hubble has been able to stay in operation during the government shutdown. STScI, which handles Hubble's science operations, can stay open during the shutdown because it received funding from NASA before the shutdown began.

If the Hubble Space Telescope experiences any technical problems, it would require the assistance of furloughed employees of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to get it up and running again, STScI officials said at the meeting.

As luck would have it, Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 stopped working on Tuesday (Jan. 8), and it's unclear when NASA's mission operators will be able to investigate and hopefully fix the problem. The telescope is equipped with three other cameras that can continue to operate in the meantime.

Although most furloughed scientists scheduled to give presentations at AAS were able to find substitute speakers at the last minute, their absence from the conference didn't go unnoticed. Not all their posters were on display in the exhibit hall. In that same room, the NSF booth appeared deserted, with a blue sign on the counter reading, "Employees are not authorized to work, in either an official or a volunteer capacity, unless they have been notified that they are either exempted or excepted from furlough."

A National Science Foundation exhibit at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.
(Image credit: Space.com)

The NSF is a federally funded agency like NASA, but the NSF town-hall discussion at AAS was not canceled. Richard Green, director of the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, was not allowed to travel to the conference, but he was still able to lead the town hall remotely via Skype. Green was able to do this because he is not technically a civil servant; rather, his job is classified as a "rotator" or temporary position. This status allows him to continue working during a shutdown, although he cannot travel.

For most federal employees, however, a government shutdown means no working, traveling and emailing from government accounts. And for federal employees who are scientists and astronomers, it means losing time, money and valuable data. Some telescope observations have to be timed with specific astronomical events, making them impractical to reschedule. Other rare or unexpected astronomical events could even go unnoticed if no telescopes are looking for them.

Until President Donald Trump and Congress can decide on a federal budget, the federally funded astronomical observatories still in operation will run out of funds and close for the duration of the shutdown.

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. Original article on Space.com.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.