Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Major Science Themes and The Cost to Complete SIM

Here is an article that summarizes the estimated cost to complete SIM and the areas of astronomy that will be helped by SIM.

      SIM Lite Astrometric Observatory - 2009 Summary

   This report tells the story of the science, and of the status of technology development, as of 2009.  In addition, on page 19, one can see that JPL estimates that it will cost only $740 million to complete Phases C and D.  This is essentially equivalent to one of NASA's New Frontiers missions.
This does not include the price of launch.  However, it is possible that SIM could be launched by ESA's Ariane 5 in an agreement with that agency.  In a future post, I will describe collaboration that has already occurred between ESA and NASA on SIM's astrometry system.   If the SIM project is terminated, then ESA will reap the rewards of JPL's, and NASA's, large investment in the design of this system.
    This report's estimates of the cost to complete SIM should be more reliable than that of most space projects.  This is a result of the time (~ 12 years) and money (~$590 million) invested in refining SIM's design, and in working down the engineering risks.  A future entry will review the engineering milestones that NASA set before the SIM team, and how that team successfully met every milestone.
As mentioned above, the United States stands to abandon this effort and to let the Europeans take the lead.  I don't mean to be jingoistic in this blog, but as an American citizen, I would like to see my country  maintain its technology and scientific edge.

   As for the science of SIM, the subtitle on this report's front page says it all - "From Earth-Like Planets to Dark Matter."  SIM will be a fantastic discovery machine.  It will not only search for nearby Earths, it will make major contributions to our understanding of a variety of astronomical subjects.  Here is a list of SIM's Science Themes, listed on page 1:

- The Search for Habitable Worlds

- Dark Matter and the Assembly of Galaxies

- Precision Stellar Astrophysics

- Supermassive Black Holes and Quasars

- Charting the Uncharted Waters

    As the last item implies, perhaps SIM's greatest contribution to science will be a discovery that we cannot predict.

    This report also summarizes the engineering that goes into making SIM a modern marvel.  As noted in the report, the SIM team completed its stunningly successful technology development program in July 2005.  Since then, the team has concentrated on reducing engineering risk.  Flight-qualifiable versions of key hardware elements were built and tested.  As a result of this work, SIM is technically ready to for full-scale development.

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