Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director, July 2014

By Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division

July 2014

As we reach the end of the fiscal year, it is time to reflect on our achievements and shortcomings, and plan for challenges ahead. We have been extremely fortunate that our space-based missions, both large and small, have continued to make headlines with spectacular scientific discoveries that capture the mind of the public. We have learned more about the way the universe works, birth of stars and galaxies, and have made great strides in discovering and understanding exoplanets.

As I described during the NASA Town Hall at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston on June 2, 2014, we have made progress toward addressing the priorities of the 2010 Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics. The appropriation that NASA Astrophysics received for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 and the Administration’s FY 2015 budget request both support our plans for continued progress. The progress we are making toward the major recommendations of the 2010 Decadal Survey includes:

  • A goal of the Astrophysics Division is to be prepared to start a new strategic NASA Astrophysics mission to follow the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) as soon as funding becomes available. Preformulation and focused technology development for a 2.4-meter version of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a mission concept referred to as the Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA), are underway. NASA received $56 million in directed funding for in FY 2014 for WFIRST/AFTA to continue preformulation activities and technology development. A recent National Research Council (NRC) study on WFIRST/AFTA offers a positive view of WFIRST/AFTA in the context of the Decadal Survey with concerns about technology and cost risks. The Administration’s FY15 budget request supports an agency/administration decision for formulation of WFIRST/AFTA to begin no earlier than FY 2017, should funding be available.
  • A new Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) element, WFIRST Preparatory Science, was announced on April 21, with a goal to bridge from basic theory to observational modeling for WFIRST/AFTA. Investigators selected will coordinate efforts with the WFIRST Study Office and the WFIRST/AFTA Science Definition Team.
  • The Administration’s FY 2015 budget request includes augmentation to the Explorer program to enable more frequent flight opportunities, including a planned Small Explorers Mission (SMEX) Announcement of Opportunity (AO) later this year (see the community announcement at http://explorers.larc.nasa.gov/APSMEX/) and a Medium Class Explorers Mission (MIDEX) around 2017.
  • Strategic technology investments are being made and partnerships are being discussed with the European Space Agency (ESA) in their gravitational wave and X-ray observatories.
  • A Dear Colleague Letter was issued on June 30, 2014, soliciting applications and nominations for individuals affiliated with U.S. institutions to participate in the ESA Science Study Team for the recently selected mission concept, "Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics" (ATHENA).
  • Strategic technology investments are being made to advance the medium scale programs including technology for exoplanet missions and technology for detection of polarization of the cosmic microwave background.
  • Modest augmentations have been made to small programs.

The FY 2014 appropriation for NASA provides $658 million for JWST and $668 million for the rest of NASA astrophysics. The FY 2015 Administration’s budget request would provide $645 million for JWST and $607 million for the rest of NASA astrophysics. Both budgets support the continued development of JWST on plan toward its launch in 2018, and both budgets include funding for continued preformulation of WFIRST as described above. Both budgets also include funding for several new missions including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the next Astrophysics Explorer mission, the Neutron Star Interior Explorer (NICER), the next Astrophysics Explorer Mission of Opportunity, and the NASA contribution to ESA's Euclid mission.

The Administration’s FY 2015 budget proposes to place SOFIA into storage by FY 2015 unless partners are able to support the U.S. portion of SOFIA costs. The NASA appropriation subcommittees in both houses of Congress, however, have proposed continued funding for SOFIA at a level sufficient to continue operations. NASA has continued to conduct the SOFIA program as planned during FY 2014.

Other program highlights since my last Newsletter include:

  • SOFIA formally entered the Operations Phase in May. Second generation instruments, HAWC+ (U.S.; far-infrared camera), and upGREAT (German; heterodyne spectrometer) are under development.
  • Astrophysics research funding remains flat, retaining the growth realized since the Decadal Survey, with the success rate of proposals hovering between 15-24 percent. This is caused by a sharp increase in the number of proposals received.
  • A Senior Review of operating missions was conducted in April. Other than the Spitzer mission, all others were approved for continued operation. The reactivated Near-Earth Objects Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE-R) data analysis proposal, MaxWISE, was not approved for funding. A full report of the Senior Review may be found at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/2014-senior-review-operating-missions/
  • In July, the Science Mission Directorate made the decision to extend Spitzer operations for the next two years. The Spitzer observatory is an important resource for on-going infrared observations for research programs across the Science Mission Directorate, and, subject to the availability of Congressional appropriations in FY 2015, it will be continued.
  • Astrophysics approved some funds for education activities in FY2014 and has continued a limited number of high impact activities.

Major activities planned for FY 2015 include confirmation of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Explorer mission, launch of the International Space Station- Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (ISS-CREAM) experiment to the Space Station, Step 1 selection of the next Small Astrophysics Explorer and Explorer Mission of Opportunity Phase A studies, launch of ESA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) Pathfinder with NASA’s Space Technology 7 (ST-7) disturbance reduction system, completion of the WFIRST/AFTA science definition team report, conduct of the Astrophysics Archives Senior Review, start of the NRC Mid-Decade Review, and celebration of 25 years of operation of the Hubble Space Telescope. All Astrophysics programs flow from the recently completed NASA 2014 Science Plan, which is available at http://science.nasa.gov/about-us/science-strategy/.

My entire presentation to the American Astronomical Society meeting is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/.

Paul Hertz
Director, Astrophysics Division
NASA Science Mission Directorate

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