Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director, August 2016

August 2016

The NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) saw a major leadership change with the departure of Associate Administrator for SMD John Grunsfeld, in May 2016. Geoffrey Yoder, formerly the Deputy Associate Administrator for SMD, has been appointed the Acting Associate Administrator for SMD. Yoder is committed to continuing to advance all SMD missions in formulation, development, and operations; integrating strategic planning across all divisions to further advance NASA objectives and Decadal Surveys; making NASA’s technical and capability management more efficient to free up resources for missions and science; and continuing to base NASA’s decisions firmly on community input and peer review.

As I described during the NASA Town Hall at the 228th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego, California, the Astrophysics Division continues to execute a portfolio that can be broadly divided into Strategic Missions, Explorer Missions, Research and Analysis (R&A), and other cross-cutting activities. We rely on our advisory committees and expert community groups to provide NASA guidance in strategic planning and in the smooth execution of our programs. The fiscal year (FY) 2017 President’s budget request, which was submitted to Congress in February 2016 and is the subject of discussion by the Congressional appropriations committees this summer, would provide funding for NASA astrophysics to continue its planned programs, missions, projects, and supporting research and technology; for the operating missions to continue to generate important and compelling science results; for the new missions under development for the future; and for continuing progress toward implementing the recommendations of the 2010 Decadal Survey (http://www.nasa.gov/news/budget/).

Conditional on Congressional appropriations that support the President’s budget request, a modest funding growth in the R&A program will continue in FY2017. In addition to R&A, NASA also funds the community through the mission Guest Observer (GO) programs. The selection rate for proposals in 2015-2016 was 23 percent for R&A proposals and 28 percent for GO proposals. One hundred percent of the 2015 selections were announced within 150 days of proposal submission. This year, in addition to the regular research opportunities solicited through the Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) NASA Research Announcement and through the mission GO programs, a late summer/fall 2016 release date is targeted for Medium-class Explorer (MIDEX) and Explorers Mission of Opportunity solicitations (http://explorers.larc.nasa.gov/APMIDEX2016/).

The NASA 2016 Astrophysics Senior Review was held during February and March 2016. Eight missions (Chandra, Fermi, Hubble, Kepler/K2, NuSTAR, Spitzer, Swift, and XMM-Newton) were evaluated in three review panels. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory were reviewed in standalone panels, as these are core facilities for the community, and are mature and stable missions with no operational changes. The Senior Review panels found no scientific reason to discontinue or significantly reduce any of the missions under review and that the scientific value of the complete operating mission portfolio is greater than the sum of its parts. The panels encouraged NASA to continue all of these missions. Based on the report of the 2016 Astrophysics Senior Review, and conditional on Congressional appropriations that support the President’s budget request, NASA approved all eight missions for continued operations through FY2017 and FY2018. The full reports of the 2016 Astrophysics Senior Review panels and NASA’s response can be found at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/2016-senior-review-operating-missions/.

With the spring 2016 New Zealand Super Pressure Balloon (SPB) campaign completed, NASA has demonstrated a new capability for ultra-long duration balloon (ULDB) missions at mid-latitudes. Launched on May 11, 2016, from Wanaka, New Zealand, the SPB circumnavigated the globe for ~46 days, terminating in a remote area of Peru on July 2, 2016. Aside from the technology test of the balloon itself, the SPB carried the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) gamma ray telescope (PI: Steven Boggs, U.C. Berkeley) as a science payload-of-opportunity. Information on the SPB campaign, including the round-the-world flight track of the mission and a link to the COSI team’s home page, is available at http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm. Additional balloon campaigns are planned this year from Palestine, Texas, Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, and McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Operating mission news includes:

  • The LISA Pathfinder mission began science operations on March 1, 2016, with a successful performance of the ESA test package. Commissioning of the NASA experiment, the Disturbance Reduction System (DRS), started at the end of June.
  • Following successful activation of the observatory and instruments, Hitomi (ASTRO-H) suffered a mission-ending spacecraft anomaly on March 26, 2016. Prior to mission failure, the NSA-provided Soft X-ray Spectrometer (SXS) demonstrated a spectral resolution of ~4.7 eV, significantly exceeding the science requirement. The SXS completed several science observations, including a scientifically important observation of the Perseus Cluster, before the anomaly.
  • The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) started conducting Cycle 4 observations in February 2016, and was in New Zealand through mid-July 2016 for southern hemisphere observations. The German second generation instrument, upGREAT, a multi-pixel heterodyne spectrometer, has been commissioned, and the testing and commissioning of the U.S. second generation instrument, HAWC+, a far infrared imager & polarimeter, is under way. The downselect for a third generation instrument will be made in September 2016.

Missions in development news includes:

  • The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) and Cosmic Ray Energy and Mass (CREAM) payloads are in storage at Kennedy Space Center awaiting launches to the International Space Station in 2017.
  • The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) project has begun fabrication and integration of all flight systems; TESS is planning a December 2017 launch.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope has achieved major milestones during the past year, including installation of all 18 telescope mirrors into the telescope backplane and integration of all four science instruments into the telescope at Goddard Space Flight Center, completion of the cryocooler for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, first powering of the spacecraft bus at Northrup Grumman, and completion of the second test of the pathfinder telescope and ground support equipment at Johnson Space Center. Planning has begun for early release observations and the Cycle 1 GO call in late 2017. More information on Webb is at http://jwst.nasa.gov/ and https://jwst.stsci.edu/.
  • The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the highest large mission priority of the 2010 Decadal Survey, became a new NASA project when it entered the formulation phase (Phase A) in February 2016. The Formulation Science Working Group has begun meeting under the leadership of Neil Gehrels (Goddard Space Flight Center), David Spergel (Princeton U.), and Jeremy Kasdin (Princeton U.). The next milestones for WFIRST are the System Requirements Review (SRR) in June 2017 and starting Phase B (KDP-B) in October 2017. More information on WFIRST is at http://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

NASA has initiated large mission concept studies to serve as input to the 2020 Decadal Survey. NASA has appointed Science and Technology Development Teams (STDT) and initiated four large mission concept studies: Far Infrared Surveyor, Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission, Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor, and X-ray Surveyor. The STDTs have a significant role and responsibility to develop a science case, flow the science case into mission parameters, vet the technology gap list, and direct trades of science versus cost/capability for the missions. NASA is also planning to issue a call later in 2016 for medium-size mission concept studies (Astrophysics Probes). Full information on NASA’s planning for the 2020 Decadal Survey is at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/2020-decadal-survey-planning/.

My entire Town Hall Presentation from the June 2016 AAS meeting is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/.

Paul Hertz
Director, Astrophysics Division
Science Mission Directorate
NASA Headquarters

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