Harvard astronomers fear the government will slash funds earmarked for a National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) mission to study Haley's comet when it passes through the solar system in 1986.
A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in Washington, D.C., said yesterday other space projects, including a $600 million Venus probe, have consumed funds the $250 million Haley's comet program would require. The OMB will make its final decision in January when it completes the final budget for the 1982 fiscal year.
"The decision better be made mighty quick," Michael Oppenheimer, Lecturer in Astronomy, said earlier this week. If the OMB does not budget money for the next fiscal year, NASA will be unable to obtain equipment necessary for close observation of its "fly-by," he added.
Here Comes The Sun
A European Scientific Agency mission, a Franco-Soviet probe, and a Japanese project all are being planned to observe the comet, which orbits the sun every 76 years.
If Congress does not fund a U.S. comet mission, the United States might join 11 other countries aboard the European Scientific Agency's project, Nicholas W. Panagakos '47, NASA's public affairs officer for space science, said Tuesday.
The OMB cut funding meant for research and development costs of a NASA ion propulsion system designed to facilitate study of the comet.
Harvard also has cancelled a $4 million experiment meant to study the particles in the comet's tail. James G. Anderson, Burden Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, Michael B. McElroy, Rotch Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, and Alexander Delgarner, Phillips Professor of Astronomy, all worked on the experiment's design.
Although Oppenheimer said he could not speculate on the extent of Harvard's involvement in the European mission, McElroy said Monday he and his colleagues would consider working on the project if it included experiments that precisely measure the comet's concentration of gases.
If the United States foregoes any close-up study of Haley's comet, it would pass up an opportunity to observe the brightest and most active comet for which scientists can predict passage into the solar system.
"It is paradoxical that one so involved in space science, namely the United States, would not take advantage of such an opportunity," Panagakos said.
Frederick L. Whipple, Phillips Professor of Astronomy Emeritus, said Monday the study of the structure, surface, and composition of a comet can help scientists understand the origins of the universe. A close view of one can also prove or disprove the presently accepted "dirty snowball" theory, that says comets are small, compact, dirty balls of water, ice, carbondioxide, and gases.