Space Mission FAME Flames Out

NASA abruptly canceled a mission last week to obtain precise measurements of 50 million stars. The Full-sky Astrometric Mapping Explorer (FAME) was slated for a 2004 launch, but burgeoning costs prompted the space agency to abandon the project.

Originally budgeted at $160 million, FAME's price tag grew to $220 million--due primarily to design and delivery problems with the two-dozen digital imaging cameras--and the final cost was likely to go even higher, according to NASA officials and Kenneth Johnston, principal investigator and astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Researchers and engineers tried in June to simplify the design to control the costs, but it wasn't enough to satisfy NASA. "It's a great disappointment," says Johnston, who had hoped to win support from the Department of Defense to cover the additional costs.

The mission, selected in a tough 1999 competition, would have been a boon to astronomers and astrophysicists eager for exact data on the location and brightness of stars, a critical metric for understanding stellar evolution, dark matter, and the distances between objects in the universe. "It's quite a loss, especially to those of us who study stars and their planetary retinue," says Ray Jayawardhana, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. "FAME would have delivered a remarkable wealth of science ... for a fairly modest price tag."

Related site
FAME's home page