Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director, September 2015

By Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division

September 2015

As fiscal year (FY) 2015 comes to a close, I would like to highlight some of our recent achievements and outline our plans ahead. As I described during the NASA Astrophysics Subcommittee meeting on July 21 -22, 2015, NASA is making progress toward achieving the goals set by the National Academy of Sciences in its 2010 Decadal Survey, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

  • Our operating missions continue to take critical observations that lead to compelling scientific discoveries. For example, in the area of exoplanets alone, the Kepler mission, which re-invented its science program in 2014 under the name K2, observed Neptune continuously for 75 days with sufficient photometric precision to probe its internal structure through global surface oscillations; the Spitzer Space Telescope observed a microlensing event of a star-plus-planet that was also observed from the ground by the OGLE consortium, the observed parallax between Spitzer and the Earth allowed both the mass and the distance of the lensing planet to be determined; Kepler mission data has yielded a mass measurement of a Mars-size exoplanet that is about one tenth the mass of the Earth.
  • SOFIA completed its second southern hemisphere deployment, and the first one to involve multiple instruments, after successfully executing scientific observations including a stellar occultation by Pluto that yielded atmospheric data supporting the New Horizons flyby.
  • Three new Small Explorer missions, SPHEREx (PI James Bock, Caltech), IXPE (PI Martin Weisskopf, MSFC), and PRAXYs (PI Keith Jahoda, GSFC), and two Missions of Opportunity, the ultralong duration balloon payload GUSTO (PI Christopher Walker, U. Arizona) and U.S. Participation in the LiteBIRD Cosmic Microwave Background Polarization Survey (PI Adrian Lee, U.C. Berkeley), were selected in July 2015 for Phase A mission concept studies.
  • The Senior Review of the NASA Astrophysics Archives, held in May 2015, gave a strong endorsement to all the archives and provided a thoughtful evaluation to guide their forward planning. The report of the Astrophysics Archives Senior Review is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/.
  • JWST continues to make technical progress during its integration and test phase according to its plan. The start of the primary mirror assembly is on track; the telescope backplane arrived at Goddard Space Flight Center in August 2015. The daily progress on integrating the mirror segments into the flight telescope backplane can be observed on the WebbCam at http://jwst.nasa.gov/. JWST remains on cost and on schedule for an October 2018 launch.
  • Proposals submitted to the Science Education Cooperative Agreement Notice solicitation have been reviewed and a decision on the re-organized Science Mission Directorate education program is expected by the end of September 2015.
  • NASA funded scientists continue to be internationally recognized for their achievements through prestigious awards such as the 2015 Shaw Prize awarded to Dr. William Borucki (NASA Ames Research Center) for leading the Kepler mission and his contribution to Exoplanet science, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's 2015 Klumpke-Roberts Award to Robert Nemiroff (Michigan Tech) and Jerry Bonnell (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) for outstanding contributions to public understanding and appreciation of astronomy for their work on the Astronomy Picture of the Day.
  • On the personnel front, during 2015 we bade farewell to visiting scientists Drs. Larry Petro, Glenn Wahlgren, Debra Wallace, and Eric Tollestrup, who completed their assignments under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA). We welcomed two new civil servant hires, Drs. Kartik Sheth and Daniel Evans, who joined the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters this summer.

Our next major challenge is supporting the review of progress toward the Decadal Survey Vision in New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. The committee has been appointed and is chaired by Jacqueline Hewitt (MIT); the Committee’s membership and meeting schedule will be available at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/SSB/CurrentProjects/SSB_161177.

In preparation for the 2020 Decadal Survey, our Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) have been busy gathering community input for potential large mission concept studies. They have held a series of workshops through the year including one at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly, Honolulu, Hawaii, in August 2015. We expect to announce a path toward mission concept studies in support of the 2020 Decadal Survey at the NASA Town Hall during the January 2016 American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida. The presentations and white papers from all of these workshops, including my presentation at the IUA General Assembly, may be found at http://cor.gsfc.nasa.gov/copag/rfi/.

My entire Astrophysics Subcommittee presentation from the July 20145 meeting is available at http://science.nasa.gov/science-committee/subcommittees/nac-astrophysics-subcommittee/.

Paul Hertz
Director, Astrophysics Division
NASA Science Mission Directorate

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