NASA Gives Up on LISA

Sorry to bump Julianne’s fun post further down the page, but lots of news today. This particular piece of news is not fun: NASA is abandoning LISA, the planned Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, as well as IXO, an X-ray satellite observatory (formerly “Constellation X”). Steinn has some of the ugly details. Short story: money is tight, and the James Webb Space Telescope is taking all of it. (Not that JWST is completely immune from danger itself…)

LISA is not completely dead: the European Space Agency will keep the planning alive. But this is a serious step, not just a feint in a budget negotiation; the LISA International Science Team is being disbanded, told to pack up and go home. Hopefully the ESA will continue to push forward, and individual researchers in the US can somehow find money to still think about gravitational-wave astrophysics from space. It’s possible that a smaller mission could be put forward, but it’s not as if NASA has extra money they’re looking to spend right now.

Of all the concepts for big astrophysics missions in space, LISA is my favorite. Unlike LIGO, which strains as hard as possible and hopefully will detect something once its upgraded, LISA would be bombarded with gravitational waves, and the trick will be picking out the interesting signals from above the ambient noise. (That’s a problem we don’t mind having.) I was part of the original Beyond Einstein roadmap team (pdf) that packaged LISA and Constellation-X together with a dark energy mission to create an ambitious but realistic plan for NASA cosmology that Congress and the OMB could get behind. That was in 2002, before wars and tax cuts and financial catastrophes sapped the government of its ability to pay for anything. The best-laid plans of mice and men and NASA panels, as the saying goes.

LISA’s science is not just achievable, it’s incredibly interesting. It would detect thousands of binary systems within our galaxy, as well as numerous inspirals of middleweight black holes into supermassive ones in other galaxies, giving us incredibly detailed access to the spacetime metric near a black hole. As a side benefit, the wavelength is just right for looking at gravitational waves that might be produced in the early universe if the electroweak phase transition is especially violent. I remember giving a talk to particle physicists planning the International Linear Collider (another possibly doomed endeavor) back in 2003. It was great to see their eyes light up when I told them about this connection between satellite observatories and particle accelerators — at a meeting dominated by budget worries, it was a tiny oasis of actual science.

Hopefully things will somehow work out, but there’s not a lot of reason for optimism at the moment. We’ll see how things go.

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63 Responses to NASA Gives Up on LISA

  1. z says:

    Europe is looking more and more appealing.

    Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures. We have tax cuts for the rich so Obama is “forced” to cut programs for the poor and cut science. The one billion the US spent in a week for Libya would have paid for LISA.

  2. Mikey says:

    Let’s add this to the lesson from Apple – don’t name a new project “Lisa.”

  3. Eugene says:

    One day, we will talk about this the way we talked about the SSC.

  4. Doug A says:

    Is there any linkable proof available supporting this rumor?

  5. Sean says:

    Doug– there is an email that went out to all members of the LISA science team. But I don’t think it’s been posted anywhere yet.

  6. gbob says:

    Z, don’t kid yourself. LISA, if it ever gets built, will cost way more than $1B, just like JWST now costs way more than the $1B the proponents originally said it would. And that is the real reason you wont have any significant NASA space science programs other than JWST for most of the next decade.

  7. Richard E. says:

    This is genuinely sad. On the one hand, LISA has been something like commercial fusion — it is always N years into the future, where N is some constant of order 10. On the other hand, LISA would provide a genuinely revolutionary way to look at the heavens.

    There is no upside to this.

  8. George Musser says:

    This isn’t the first time NASA has canceled LISA – the project was “deferred indefinitely” during the agency’s budget squeeze of 2006. Let us hope it can rise from the dead once more.

  9. Charles Dunn says:

    Actually the astrophysics decadal survey killed LISA and IXO by rating them behind WFIRST and the Explorer program. At this priority, NASA did not have the budget to to LISA on the timescale required for the ESA Cosmic Visions Large mission (and LISA was not yet selected for this in anycase).

  10. Bernard Kelly says:

    Advanced LIGO is supposed to go live in 2014. If all goes well there, perhaps LISA (or whatever they call it) will get renewed interest by late 2015.

    Richard E.: LISA may have suffered from future creep like fusion, but I suspect many missions do, and some of them do actually get built/launched and come on line.

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  12. Z says:

    Advanced LIGO will go live by 2014, but it won’t achieve design sensitivity until several years after that date. So, realistically, don’t expect any gravitational wave detections for at least 5 years.

    Perhaps the millisecond pulsar groups will beat LIGO at “directly” detecting GWs

  13. Herman says:

    After sitting in on a Kip Thorne lecture last year, this sad news took the wind out of my sails.


  14. Europe is looking more and more appealing.

    Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures. We have tax cuts for the rich so Obama is “forced” to cut programs for the poor and cut science. The one billion the US spent in a week for Libya would have paid for LISA.

    In all honesty, the Republicans don’t have the better track record for funding fundamental research. Also, keep in mind that now that he doesn’t have a majority in both houses of Congress, one can’t pin everything one doesn’t like on Obama. In particular, the “tax cuts for the rich” smell more Republican.

  15. Dave says:

    Cut the defense budget in half and give it to NASA and its private contractors.
    Cease the Bush Tax Cuts and instead invest in a full spectrum of science and research.
    End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    We spend $190 million A DAY in Afghanistan alone, while cutting programs that could supply insight into the nature of reality and ultimately the origin of all existence.

    We’re a doomed species, advanced enough to realize the tragedy of our collective stupidity.

  16. Georg says:

    On the other hand, LISA would provide a genuinely revolutionary way to look at the heavens.

    Right, and in such instances always something extremely interesting was found.
    (often not the thing one looked for:=)

  17. réalta fuar says:

    Completely out of my field, and LISA’s potential has always been grand, but it’s my meager understanding that there are still significant technological hurdles that have not yet been met (I like the comparison above to commercial fusion). This seems unique to me for a project which has had so much support. My impression is that a lot has been taken for granted in terms of whether or not LISA COULD be completed, as designed.

  18. John says:

    “And that is the real reason you wont have any significant NASA space science programs other than JWST for most of the next decade.”

    Nonsense. I would remind you that WMAP was an explorer class mission.

  19. Fred says:

    I just found out and I’m really bummed.

    I found out about LISA when I was in first year when I asked my lecturer about the speed of gravity and gave me a cool 30 minute lecture that ended up with this experiment. It’s probably what kept me from switching out of physics into something else.

    This is why I don’t understand politics of the United States. They spend untold billions each year on its military (300? 200?) and then they always want to cut the budget of places like NASA. Why not just transfer stuff to NASA? I imagine it’s not that simple, but still.

  20. Julianne says:

    I think it’s wrong to frame this as “JWST killed LISA and IXO” or “The Decadal Survey killed LISA and IXO”. The space science budget is a very small fraction of NASA’s total budget and the money is there to solve the JWST issues without gutting space science, if NASA would treat it as an agency wide issue. The JWST shortfall was largely a NASA project management failure (according to the Casani report), resulting indirectly from Constellation squeezing everything out, but all of space science is paying the price.

  21. Phil says:

    This is really sad news, lets hope ESA can continue, what about the Chinese? hasn’t anyone tried to collaborate with them? They seem to long of cash and looking for some space glory.

  22. valatan says:

    @Philip Helbig: The tax cuts for the rich were extended while the Democrats still had both houses. The Democrats chose to ‘take it off the table’ for the election.

  23. wtf says:

    “Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures.”

    Idiot talk like that has got to stop. Obama and the Democrats cannot strangle opponents into voting their way. Complain about the people CUTTING science budgets, you genius internet people. Don’t complain about how the political system disallows hand to hand combat.

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  25. JT says:

    @Fred: There are many issues with the politics and budget of the US, not the least of which is that it is hard to get 308,745,548 (# of US residents in 2010 according to the census) people to agree on what we should spend our money on. Especially when most of them can’t even identify most federal agencies or politicians other than the president. If you’re interested, the 2010 US budget numbers can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_United_States_federal_budget . First of all note that we spent 1.4 trillion more than we brought in. The claim is that’s the reason why we’re headed for a federal shutdown tomorrow (although it appears to be more of the petty policy battles over things like funding NPR).

    @Julianne: In NASA’s FY2012 budget request (available on NASA’s website), science gets $5B out of a total of $18B, not an insignificant fraction. JWST gets ~$400M per year of this $5B every year for the foreseeable future, presumably until in launches. Again, not insignificant when you consider that the $5B funds all of science, not just astrophysics.

    Bottom line is that NASA doesn’t have the money to do any big astrophysics (and maybe planetary) missions in the next decade. This makes both the recent Astrophysics and Planetary decadal surveys dead-on-arrival. Europe has no choice but to go it alone because they have a chunk of money that they are supposed to start spending in 2015. I sincerely hope that the European gravitational wave community can pull together and get something going, perhaps in the interim fortunes in the US will change and we can contribute when the time comes.