SPICA Update

From David Naylor, SPICA Canadian HoN and Co-I, University of Lethbridge
and Doug Johnstone, SPICA Science Team, NRC-Herzberg

(Cassiopeia – Winter 2020)

As most astronomers already know, in October the SPICA project ended abruptly. To explain the situation, on October 7th we sent the following letter to the Canadian SPICA supporters.

We regret to report that today we received official word that ESA and JAXA have concluded that the SPICA mission is no longer viable, since, somewhat belatedly, the mission has been deemed to exceed their budgetary envelopes. Thus, the SPICA mission has now been officially withdrawn from the M5 competition. This result is especially surprising given that SPICA recently passed its Mission Consolidation Review (MCR) and was to have faced the Mission Selection Review in Spring 2021.

This news is a huge disappointment. In 2008 Canada, led by David Naylor (Lethbridge) and with support from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), became a founding member of the SPICA/SAFARI consortium and played a key role in developing the high-resolution spectrometer for this instrument, a Fourier Transform Spectrometer (FTS) essential for a significant fraction of the far infrared science case. Since 2015, Doug Johnstone (NRC-Herzberg) has been actively involved in science program development and over 30 astronomers across Canada expressed their support for the SPICA mission as part of the recent Long Range Plan 2020 process.

The FTS is widely regarded as a Canadian signature technology, having strengths in both the industrial and academic sectors. Furthermore, results obtained from the prototype cryogenic FTS, developed by ABB, have been well received by the SAFARI consortium, demonstrating Canada’s capability to successfully deliver this critical instrument component.

Despite this significant setback, the future of infrared space astronomy is well understood and will involve either a large aperture, cold telescope or an interferometric concept. The Origins Space Telescope, presented to the US Decadal Report panel as one of five NASA flagship mission possibilities, is an example of the former. Presently, an interferometer concept has been contemplated for the next ESA large mission competition, but this may well change given the loss of the SPICA mission. Either of these mission concepts will require a cryogenic FTS and Canada’s investment on behalf of the SAFARI instrument will assuredly make us the partner of choice to deliver such an instrument to the next far infrared space astronomy mission.

We thank the CSA for their 12 years of support for SPICA, the Canadian community for their continued, and growing, desire for access to the far-infrared universe, and the LRP 2020 panel for prioritizing the importance of Canada as a contributing partner to far-infrared space-based missions.

Over the last 12 years Canada has formed deep bonds with the international far-infrared space astronomy community and leaves the SPICA project as a highly respected partner.

In the two months since this devasting news, there has been a high level of action within the Canadian and International astronomical communities to ensure that the promise of SPICA lives on.

Within Canada, discussions with the Canadian Space Agency and the Joint Committee on Space Astronomy have focused on ensuring that the on-going technology development activities, related to a cryogenic high resolution spectrometer for a far-infrared space telescope, are able to reach their objectives. This commitment recognizes that a successor to SPICA is necessary to fill the infrared gap that exists between JWST and ALMA and by continuing this instrument development work Canada is well positioned to join such efforts.

In addition, we would like to acknowledge the editors of the 2020 Long Range Plan who were able to modify, on a very short timeline, the text of the document, to ensure that the goals of SPICA, rather than the specific mission opportunity, remain strongly endorsed by the Canadian community. Thus, the final version of the LRP document refers to the need for Canadian involvement in a future “Cooled infrared space telescope”.

On the international scene, the larger aperture Origins Space Telescope opportunity submitted to the US Decadal Report, expected to be released in mid-2021, takes on a much larger importance. The instrumentation proposed for Origins would benefit significantly from the Canadian technology developed for the SPICA/Safari instrument. Within the European community discussions on a successor mission are being explored.

The manner in which the SPICA mission was cancelled has raised significant concerns among the astronomy community. In a rare occurrence, Nature agreed to publish a letter expressing the community’s concern about the lack of transparency in the decision making process. The abridged version of the letter can be found here; the full letter here. The letter has now garnered over 500 signatures from leading scientists around the world.

Many of us will be pleased to see 2020 recede into the past. As we look forward to the next decade, those of us championing SPICA within Canada intend to continue to work with our international colleagues to make a cooled infrared space telescope a reality, with Canada playing a leadership role in instrumentation and science direction.

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