Summary

The astronomy science centers established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to serve as the interfaces between astronomy missions and the community of scientists who utilize the data have been enormously successful in enabling space-based astronomy missions to achieve their scientific potential. These centers have transformed the conduct of much of astronomical research, established a new paradigm for the use of large astronomical facilities, and advanced the science far beyond what would have been possible without them.

PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

NASA astronomy science centers take a number of forms and have been compared in terms of many factors, including cost, personnel, services offered, and the size of the community served (see Chapter 3 and Appendix A, Table A.1). The centers enable continuing scientific and educational use of the data during the operational life of a space-based astronomy mission and for years afterward. When NASA considers establishing new observing facilities, its decision on whether to use existing science centers, create new ones, or pursue other vehicles for data archiving, education and outreach, and community support for that mission is often critical. To that end, NASA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to examine current astronomy science centers with respect to their roles and services, to identify lessons learned and best practices, and to consider whether there are optimum sizes or approaches for such centers (see Appendix B for the study charge).

NASA ASTRONOMY SCIENCE CENTERS AND THEIR FUNCTIONS

NASA empowers a range of center types and sizes, from relatively modest facilities to large, full-service science centers, with budgets ranging from approximately $6 million to $80 million (Appendix A). As requested in the study charge, the committee examined a cross section of center types, including a small mission center, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) guest observer facility (GOF); a guest observer facility, the X-ray Multimirror Mission–Newton (XMM–Newton); three larger flagship mission



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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers Summary The astronomy science centers established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to serve as the interfaces between astronomy missions and the community of scientists who utilize the data have been enormously successful in enabling space-based astronomy missions to achieve their scientific potential. These centers have transformed the conduct of much of astronomical research, established a new paradigm for the use of large astronomical facilities, and advanced the science far beyond what would have been possible without them. PURPOSE OF THE STUDY NASA astronomy science centers take a number of forms and have been compared in terms of many factors, including cost, personnel, services offered, and the size of the community served (see Chapter 3 and Appendix A, Table A.1). The centers enable continuing scientific and educational use of the data during the operational life of a space-based astronomy mission and for years afterward. When NASA considers establishing new observing facilities, its decision on whether to use existing science centers, create new ones, or pursue other vehicles for data archiving, education and outreach, and community support for that mission is often critical. To that end, NASA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to examine current astronomy science centers with respect to their roles and services, to identify lessons learned and best practices, and to consider whether there are optimum sizes or approaches for such centers (see Appendix B for the study charge). NASA ASTRONOMY SCIENCE CENTERS AND THEIR FUNCTIONS NASA empowers a range of center types and sizes, from relatively modest facilities to large, full-service science centers, with budgets ranging from approximately $6 million to $80 million (Appendix A). As requested in the study charge, the committee examined a cross section of center types, including a small mission center, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) guest observer facility (GOF); a guest observer facility, the X-ray Multimirror Mission–Newton (XMM–Newton); three larger flagship mission

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers science centers, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), and the Spitzer Science Center (SSC); and a center focusing on interferometric data, the Michelson Science Center (MSC). The committee also considered two archival centers: the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It discerned a consistent set of functions and services that allow the research community to utilize the data in creative ways that advance research and our understanding of the cosmos and to preserve the data and metadata for future use, including the following: Support of flight operations, Instrument support and calibration, Data analysis and Level 1 processing, Archiving and distribution of data to the research community, Software development and documentation for science analysis, Help desk and other user support services, User workshops and symposia, Proposal submission processing and peer review evaluation, Grant management and administration, Scientific research, Advocacy and strategic planning, and Education and public outreach. The committee’s assessment identified the factors that impeded or aided a center’s ability to provide the full range of these functions effectively. FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS NASA Astronomy Science Centers for Managing Current and Planned Missions The committee concluded that the core services of astronomy centers—mission support, scientific research, and data archiving—could be viewed as reaching their fullest performance at the following astronomy centers: (1) STScI, (2) CXC, (3) HEASARC and its associated RXTE and XMM–Newton guest observer facilities, and (4) IPAC and its associated Spitzer and Michelson science centers. The committee concluded that because a number of space-based astronomy missions had been delayed, the existing astronomy centers have sufficient scientific and programmatic expertise to manage all of NASA’s astronomy center responsibilities now, for the foreseeable future, and after the active phases of current and planned missions have been completed. Finding: The Chandra X-ray Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center have sufficient scientific and programmatic expertise to manage NASA’s current science center responsibilities after the active phases of all current and planned space-based astronomy missions have been completed. Recommendation 1. NASA should establish a large new center only when the following criteria

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers are met: (1) the existing centers lack the capacity to support a major new scientific initiative and (2) there is an imminent need to develop a new infrastructure to support a broad base of users. The committee viewed the presence of research scientists and visiting scientists at the NASA astronomy science centers as enhancing the role of those centers and their ability to provide exciting and intellectually rich environments for the research scientists they employ. No additional full-time researchers are required for a center to serve the community effectively, and the committee believes that all scientists at a center should be involved, at some level, in facilitating the mission with which the center is involved. Finding: The ability of the Chandra X-ray Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center to provide the appropriate level of support to the scientific community depends critically on the extent to which they can attract, retain, and effectively deploy individuals with the mix of research and engineering skills necessary to maintain continuity of service. Guest Observer Facilities and Explorer-Class Mission Centers It was clear to the committee that all of the NASA astronomy science centers examined for the study can provide valuable services to the community, but that the smaller GOF and Explorer mission centers lack the resources and staff support to provide the full range of science center services effectively on their own. GOFs such as those for RXTE and XMM–Newton can manage a modest level of service in many areas only because they are able to draw on portions of the time of talented people who were engaged in other activities at their institutions. Associating GOFs or Explorer centers with the larger archival centers or flagship mission centers, which have staff and infrastructure in place, enables them to leverage necessary skills and services and serve their scientific constituents. Finding: Embedding GOFs in existing science centers, such as the HEASARC, provides for efficient user support, especially when the scope of a space mission does not require establishing a separate center. The archival centers provide an important service insofar as they are able to accommodate mission centers at varying stages of operation and to move staff among projects as missions start up or wind down. The sharing of staff scientists among center missions and the transitioning of staff as missions start and end provide both stability and flexibility. The archival centers also provide proposal and analysis software, search tools, and other resources that users can apply to the multiple databases they hold. Further benefits accrue in the knowledge base that staff acquire from one mission to the next, which allows for transferring best practices and lessons learned among missions. BEST PRACTICES FOR ASTRONOMY SCIENCE CENTERS The committee identified a set of best practices for the flagship and archival NASA astronomy science centers that, if adopted, can guide their continued effectiveness (Box S.1). Should the opportunity arise and the conditions be met for establishing a new center, the best practices can serve as input to selecting operational functions for it.

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers BOX S.1 Best Practices for NASA Astronomy Science Centers Mission Operations NASA astronomy science centers can best operate the spacecraft and process the resulting data if they Have close interaction among scientists, engineers, and programmers. Such interaction is especially important for off-site principal investigator (PI) teams. Have research scientists who participate actively in mission operations and in policy decisions. Have mission staff knowledgeable about the instrumentation and the satellite in order to provide detailed advice and technical support to the user. Provide adequate instrument calibration. Provide functional software by the time data first arrive. Science Operations NASA astronomy science centers can best support their scientific user communities if they Support robust, accessible, well-documented software. Use common rather than instrument-specific software across missions when possible. Maintain adequate online supporting materials and a help desk with adequate staffing and rapid turnaround. Provide user-friendly protocols and software for proposal entry and require minimal technical details for the initial proposal. Enable coordinated observations and proposal submission among multiple space- and/or ground-based observatories. Co-locate staff to support multiple missions with related scientific objectives. Retain key science center staff by providing them with evolving opportunities in either multiple missions or within the host/managing institution. Recommendation 2. NASA should adopt a set of best practices as guiding principles to ensure the effectiveness of existing flagship and archival NASA astronomy science centers and to select the operational functions of any future centers. COOPERATION AMONG SCIENCE CENTERS AND AGENCIES Cooperation among NASA astronomy science centers and related agencies can lead to a greater impact on research results, data access, and educational activities. For example, researchers may be able to cross discipline and wavelength boundaries in analyzing astronomical data. Providing tools and formats that are common to all wavelength bands and supporting common protocols and formats for proposal entry can facilitate multiwavelength research. The committee concluded that astronomy sci-

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Portals to The Universe: The NASA Astronomy Science Centers Give scientists at science centers guaranteed research time but not guaranteed observation time. Have a visiting scientist program. Data and Archiving Science centers can best process, store, and disseminate their data if they Provide rapid (<24 hr) response to requests for data that have been calibrated and archived. Support common analysis software and protocols that can be used by all the science centers. Maintain mission expertise at the archive centers for the long-term support of active users. Ensure that standards for access to all astronomical data archives are coordinated by an entity such as the National Virtual Observatory and that the infrastructure, including formats and analysis tools, is accessible and sustainable. Education and Public Outreach Science centers can best communicate their results to the public if they Involve staff scientists and investigators in education and public outreach (EPO) activities. Coordinate EPO efforts of smaller missions with EPO systems of the large NASA astronomy science centers. Develop classroom resources that Are designed iteratively through field testing and evaluation in actual classrooms. Include hands-on activities when possible. Support standards-based curricula. Are packaged with protocols for measuring learning effectiveness. Are accessible and cross-linked so that teachers can easily find them. Include teacher support (e.g., Web-based teacher guides, training for master teachers). ence centers need to develop a coherent strategy for K-12 education if their educational activities are to have a greater impact. Recommendation 3. NASA should ensure that NASA astronomy science centers cooperate among themselves and with other agencies to develop strategies and plans for Developing common protocols and formats for proposal entry; Developing a universal infrastructure for data formats and metadata, archiving, and retrieval and analysis tools; and Providing curriculum materials and professional development programs for K-12 teachers.