Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director, June 2013

By Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division

June 2013

Since fall 2012, NASA has been studying potential uses of the 2.4-meter telescope assets that were made available to the Agency by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in mid-2012. The Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) study showed that for approximately the same costs, the telescope assets would enable a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission with significantly improved science capabilities relative to the design described in the Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Use of the telescope assets would also enable the addition of an exoplanet imaging instrument to WFIRST that would enable imaging and characterization of planets around nearby stars up to a decade earlier than contemplated in the Decadal Survey. The results of the studies were presented to the NASA Administrator and other senior officials across the Agency on May 30, 2013. The Administrator directed the Science Mission Directorate to continue pre-formulation activities for a mission using the 2.4-meter telescope assets to prepare for a later decision as to whether a WFIRST mission would be undertaken with these optics. No decision on a future wide-field infrared survey mission is expected until early 2016. The study report by the AFTA Science Definition Team is available at http://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/.

Although this remains a time of opportunity for NASA Astrophysics, the budgetary future remains uncertain. The FY13 rescission and sequestration has an impact. The rescission (~1.8%), sequestration (~5%), and other budget adjustments will result in an FY13 Astrophysics budget significantly lower than planned. The President’s FY14 Budget Request supports several NASA decisions that have been previously announced, including a new Explorer mission (TESS; http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/nasa-selects-tess-for-mission-0405.html) and a new Explorer Mission of Opportunity (NICER; http://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/nicer/) downselected for development leading to flight, a new Euclid project to fund hardware procurement and a US science team for our partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), and mission extensions for Spitzer, Planck, Chandra, Fermi, XMM, Kepler, Swift, and Suzaku per the recommendation of the 2012 Senior Review. The FY14 Budget Request also requires efficiencies in Fermi mission operations to be implemented in FY14, ahead of schedule and resulting in a significant reduction of operating costs, and it does not support selections for the 2012 Astrophysics Explorer Mission of Opportunity AO. Impacts of these revised budget planning numbers also include lowered research and analysis (R&A) selection rates in 2013 (for FY14 funding), delays in future Explorer AOs, and other reductions in FY14 where funding requirements were deferred from FY13. The constrained budget request for FY14 and constrained planning budget for FY15-FY18 means priorities must be set and choices must be made.

Within these budgetary constraints, NASA will continue to be guided by the goals of the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey; we have developed an implementation plan to do so, and it is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/. A task force of the Astrophysics Subcommittee (APS), led by Chryssa Kouveliotou, is developing an Astrophysics Roadmap to create a compelling, 30-year vision for Astrophysics at NASA. The team has received community input through abstracts on science and technology challenges, as well as through invited talks from experts. The Roadmap team is maintaining communication with the astrophysics community through their webpage at http://science.nasa.gov/science-committee/subcommittees/nac-astrophysics-subcommittee/astrophysics-roadmap/.

NASA is compelled to make the short-term sacrifices necessary to meet this vision. The impacts of a reduced budget include a change in the pace of the Explorer program and putting on hold selections from the 2012 Announcement of Opportunity for Explorer Missions of Opportunity; lowered R&A selection rates in 2013 (for FY14 funding); and other reductions in FY14 where funding requirements have been deferred, such as funding of accepted Cycle 7 proposals to the Fermi Guest Observers program, which will be deferred until early FY15. We continue to look for scientists who would like to join the NASA staff for a few years and bring their talent and ideas to influence the nation’s space Astrophysics program.

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

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