Chandra X-ray Observatory Threatened By Budget Cuts

Launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in July of 1999, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the most capable space telescope of its kind. As of this writing, the spacecraft is in good health and is returning valuable scientific data. It’s currently in an orbit that extends at its highest point to nearly one-third the distance to the Moon, which gives it an ideal vantage point from which to make its observations, and won’t reenter the Earth’s atmosphere for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Yet despite this rosy report card, Chandra’s future is anything but certain. Faced with the impossible task of funding all of its scientific missions with the relative pittance they’re allocated from the federal government, NASA has signaled its intent to wind down the space telescope’s operations over the next several years. According to their latest budget request, the agency wants to slash the program’s $41 million budget nearly in half for 2026. Funding would remain stable at that point for the next two years, but in 2029, the money set aside for Chandra would be dropped to just $5.2 million.

Drastically reducing Chandra’s budget by the end of the decade wouldn’t be so unexpected if its successor was due to come online in a similar time frame. Indeed, it would almost be expected. But despite being considered a high scientific priority, the x-ray observatory intended to replace Chandra isn’t even off the drawing board yet. The 2019 concept study report for what NASA is currently calling the Lynx X-ray Observatory estimates a launch date in the mid-2030s at the absolute earliest, pointing out that several of the key components of the proposed telescope still need several years of development before they’ll reach the necessary Technology Readiness Level (TRL) for such a high profile mission.

With its replacement for this uniquely capable space telescope decades away even by the most optimistic of estimates, the  potential early retirement of the Chandra X-ray Observatory has many researchers concerned about the gap it will leave in our ability to study the cosmos.

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Artist rendition of the Chandra telescope system in deep space. (Credit: NASA / James Vaughn)

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory Faces Shutdown In FY2025 Budget

The Chandra X-ray Observatory started its mission back in 1999 when Space Shuttle Columbia released it from its payload bay. Originally, it was supposed to serve only a five-year mission, but it has managed twenty-four years so far and counting, providing invaluable science along with the other Great Observatory: the Hubble Space Telescope. Unfortunately, NASA’s FY2025 budget now looks to threaten all space telescopes and Chandra in particular. This comes as part of the larger FY2025 US budget, which sees total funding for NASA increase by 2%, but not enough to prevent cuts in NASA’s space telescope operations.

NASA already¬†anticipated this cut in 2023, with funding shifting to the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (infrared spectrum, scheduled for 2027). Since Hubble is a joint operation with ESA, any shortfalls might be caught this way, but Chandra’s budget will go from 68.3M USD in FY2023 to 41.4M USD in FY2025 and from there plummeting to 5.2M USD by FY2029, effectively winding down the project and ending NASA’s flagship X-ray astronomy mission. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, with a website called Save Chandra now launched to petition the US government to save the observatory, noting that it still has a decade of fuel for its thrusters remaining and it also has stable mission costs.

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More Than Just Hubble: The Space Observatories Filling The Skies Today And Tomorrow

Amidst the recent news about the Hubble Space Telescope’s troubles (and triumphant resurrection), it is sometimes easy to forget that although Hubble is a pretty unique telescope, it is just one of many space-based observatories that are currently zipping overhead right now or perched in a heliocentric orbit. So what is it that makes these observatories less known than the iconic Hubble telescope?

Hubble is one of the longest-lived space telescopes so far, and it is also the only space telescope that was both launched and serviced by the Space Shuttle. None of the other telescopes have this legacy, the high-profile, or troubled history of Hubble’s intended successor: the James Web Space Telescope (JWST).

Even so, the mission profiles of these myriad other observatories are no less interesting, least of the many firsts accomplished recently such as a long-term moon-based telescope (Chang’e 3’s LUT) and those of the many upcoming and proposed missions. Let’s take a look at the space observatories many of us have never heard of.

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Hackaday Links: April 4, 2021

Can I just say that doing a links roundup article in a week that includes April Fool’s Day isn’t a fun job? Because it’s not. I mean, how can you take something like reports of X-rays flowing from Uranus seriously when they release the report on such a day? It sure looks like a legitimate story, though, and a pretty interesting one. Planets emitting X-rays isn’t really a new thing; we’ve known that Jupiter and Saturn are both powerful X-ray sources for decades. Even though Uranus is the odd child of our solar system, finding evidence for X-ray emissions buried in data captured by the Chandra observatory in 2007 was unexpected. Astronomers think the X-rays might be coming from Uranus’ rings, or they might be reflections of X-rays streaming out from the sun. Or, it might be the weird alignment of the gas giant’s magnetic field causing powerful aurorae that glow in the X-ray part of the spectrum. Whatever it is, it’s weird and beautiful, which all things considered isn’t a bad way for things to be.

Another potential jest-based story popped up this week about the seemingly impossible “EmDrive”. It seems that when you appear to be breaking the laws of physics, you’re probably doing it wrong, and careful lab tests showed that fuel-free propulsion isn’t here yet. One would think it was self-obvious that filling a closed asymmetrical chamber with microwaves would produce absolutely no thrust, but EmDrive proponents have reported small but measurable amounts of thrust from the improbable engine for years. A team at TU Dresden found otherwise, though. Even though they were able to measure a displacement of the engine, it appears to be from the test stand heating up and warping as the RF energy flowed into the drive chamber. By changing the way the engine was supported, they were able to cancel out the dimensional changes that were making it look like the EmDrive was actually working.

Want to use surface-mount parts, but don’t want to bother spinning up an SMD board? Not a problem, at least if you follow the lead of David Buchanan and perform no-surface surface-mount prototyping. We stumbled upon this on Twitter and thought it looked cool — it’s got a little bit of a circuit sculpture feeling, and we like the old-school look of plain 0.1″ perfboard. David reports that the flying leads are just enameled magnet wire; having done our share of scraping and cleaning magnet wire prior to soldering, we figured that part of the build must have been painful. We pinged David and asked if he had any shortcuts for prepping magnet wire, but alas, he says he just used a hot blob of solder and a little patience while the enamel cooked off. We still really like the style of this build, and we applaud the effort.

Speaking of stumbling across things, that’s one of the great joys of this job — falling down algorithmically generated rabbit holes as we troll about for the freshest hacks. One such serendipitous was this YouTube channel documenting a really nice jet engine build. We’ve seen plenty of jet engines before, but very few with afterburners like this one has. There’s also something deeply satisfying about the variable-throat nozzle that Praendy built for the engine — it’s a level of complexity that you don’t often see in hobbyist jet engines, and yet the mechanism is very simple and understandable.

The other rabbit hole we discovered was after reporting on this cool TIG tungsten grinding tool. That took us into The Metalist’s back catalog, where we found a lot of interesting stuff. But the real treat was this automatic tube polisher (video), which we have to say kept us guessing up to the very end. If you’ve got 12 minutes and you enjoy metalworking builds at all, watch it and see if you’re not surprised by the cleverness of this tool.

And finally, we had heard of the travails of Anatoli Bugorski before, but never in the detail presented in this disturbing video. (Embedded below.)

Who is Anatoli Bugorski, you ask? He is a Russian particle physicist who, while working in an accelerator lab in 1978, managed to get his head directly in the path of a 76 GeV proton beam. Despite getting a huge dose of radiation, Bugorski not only survived the accident but managed to finish his Ph.D. and went on to a long career in nuclear physics. He also got married and had a son. He was certainly injured — facial paralysis and partial deafness, mainly — but did not suffer anything like the gruesome fates of the Chernobyl firefighters or others receiving massive radiation doses. The video goes into some detail about how the accident happened — two light bulbs are better than one, it turns out. We enjoyed the video, but couldn’t stop thinking that Bugorski was the Russian atomic-age equivalent of Phineas Gage.