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New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics
(AOs) have been so infrequent that the ability to partner with foreign missions has been compromised, and resources have been insufficient to select suborbital platforms, which can be critical to advancing key science goals.
The committee therefore recommends, as its second priority in the large category of space-based projects, that NASA should support the selection of two new astrophysics MIDEX missions, two new astrophysics SMEX missions, and at least four astrophysics MoOs over the coming decade. AOs should be released on a predictable basis as close to annually as possible, to facilitate Missions of Opportunity. Further, the committee encourages inclusion of suborbital payload selections, if they offer compelling scientific returns. To accommodate this plan, an annual budget increase would be required for the astrophysics portion of the program from its current average value of about $40 million per year to a steady value of roughly $100 million by 2015. The placement of this recommendation in the large category reflects the decade’s total cost of the program including the augmentation and the committee’s view that expanding the Explorer program is essential to maintaining the breadth and vitality of NASA’s astrophysics program. This is especially true in an era where budgetary constraints limit the number of flagship missions that can be started.
Priority 3 (Large, Space). Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)
LISA is a gravity wave observatory that would open an entirely new window in the universe (Figure 7.5). Using ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by the motion of the densest objects in the universe, LISA will detect the mergers of black holes with masses ranging from 10,000 to 10 million solar masses at cosmological distances, and will make a census of compact binary systems throughout the Milky Way. LISA’s measurements of black hole mass and spin will be important for understanding the significance of mergers in the building of galaxies. LISA also is expected to detect signals from stellar-mass compact stellar remnants as they orbit and fall into massive black holes. Detection of such objects would provide exquisitely precise tests of Einstein’s theory of gravity. There may also be waves from unanticipated or exotic sources, such as backgrounds produced during the earliest moments of the universe or cusps associated with cosmic strings.
Using three “drag-free” spacecraft launched into an equilateral triangular configuration in an Earth-trailing orbit, LISA would explore the low-frequency (0.1 to 100-mHz) portion of the gravitational wave spectrum, observable only in space, to achieve its scientific objectives. The sides of the triangle are 5 million kilometers, and the “laser-connected” spacecraft would measure their separations to an accuracy enabling detection of tens of picometers relative motions induced by passing gravitational waves. The mission lifetime is planned as 5 years.