Message from NASA Astrophysics Division Director, January 2017

January 2017

The NASA Science Mission Directorate started the new year under new leadership. In October 2016, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen joined NASA as the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. Zurbuchen comes from the University of Michigan, where he was professor of space science and aerospace engineering, and founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship. In December 2016, Mr. Dennis Andrucyk was appointed the Deputy Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. Andrucyk has served in a number of senior NASA leadership roles, including Deputy Associate Administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate and Director of Engineering at Goddard Space Flight Center. I look forward to continuing to execute NASA’s broad and balanced portfolio of astrophysics activities under their leadership. See https://science.nasa.gov/about-us/leadership/bios for more information.

As I described during the NASA Town Hall at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Grapevine, Texas, the Astrophysics Division is continuing to execute a broad portfolio of research activities and missions for the community, many of which were the subject of sessions at the AAS meeting. In order to maximize the science return from the NASA astrophysics program, we rely on community participation at every level of the program. This includes The Astrophysics Advisory Committee (formally the Astrophysics Subcommittee), the Program Analysis Groups (PAGs), Science and Technology Development Teams for future missions, mission and archive User Groups, and peer review panels. I invite you to self-nominate yourself to participate in any of these community groups.

NASA has issued a new update to the Astrophysics Implementation Plan. This document explains NASA’s plans and progress for implementing the priorities and recommendations of the 2010 Decadal Survey, as well as the strategy in the 2014 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2014 NASA Science Plan. The 2016 Astrophysics Implementation Plan Update is at https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/.

The next two years will see the launches of four NASA astrophysics missions into orbit. The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), an Explorer Mission of Opportunity, will be launching to the International Space Station in early 2017 (https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/nicer). After that, the Cosmic Ray Energy and Mass (CREAM) experiment, a successful balloon-born experiment repackaged for space, will join NICER on the International Space Station (http://cosmicray.umd.edu/iss-cream). In early 2018, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a Medium-class Explorer (MIDEX) mission, will be launched (http://tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/). The launch dates for all three of these missions depends on the return-to-flight schedule for the Falcon 9 rocket. Then in October 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket to its orbit at Sun-Earth L2 (see below for details).

NASA is operating at the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 levels through April 2017 under a continuing resolution; this budget level is generally continued in the proposed FY2017 budget. Under these budgets, NASA astrophysics is provided with ~$1.35B for its programs and missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope. This funding level is sufficient for NASA astrophysics to continue its planned programs, missions, projects, research, and technology; the operating missions will continue to generate important and compelling science results, new missions will continue being developed; and progress will be made toward implementing the recommendations of the 2010 Decadal Survey.

A new Small Explorer (SMEX) mission, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) led by Martin Weisskopf (Marshall Space Flight Center), has been selected for development. IXPE will provide a new capability for the study of high-energy phenomena, imaging X-ray polarimetry. The proposed launch date for IXPE is November 2020. NASA’s announcement is at https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-mission-to-study-black-holes-cosmic-x-ray-mysteries.

NASA supports the astrophysics community through a number of competed programs, including Guest Observer/Guest Investigator (GO) programs, Research and Analysis (R&A) programs, and Postdoctoral Fellowship (Hubble, Einstein, and Sagan) programs. Funding for R&A has been increased by 20 percent since the 2010 Decadal Survey. However proposal numbers have grown faster than funding over this period, so selection rates have fallen. The selection rate in 2016 was 22 percent for R&A proposals and 27 percent and for GO proposals. One hundred percent of the selections were announced within 154 days of the proposal due date during 2016.

The funding balance between the R&A programs and the postdoctoral fellowship programs has become suboptimal; the fellowship programs have grown from one-tenth of the R&A budget to one-sixth of the R&A budget. NASA is rebalancing the funding balance between the two programs. Starting with the 2017-2018 fellowship year (fellows selected in early 2017), the number of fellows selected will be reduced. The funding freed up will be invested in the R&A programs. At the same time, the application and review process for all three fellowships will be combined into a single application and review. The changes will not alter the current balance or the mix of science topics within the overall fellowship program.

The 2017 Research Opportunities for Space and Earth Science (ROSES) solicitation will be released in mid-February 2017 and posted at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/. Beginning with ROSES-2017, Astrophysics Theory Program (ATP) proposals will be solicited every other year. NASA expects to issue its second call for Theoretical and Computational Astrophysics Networks (TCAN) proposals in late 2017 with proposals due in early 2018. There is a new process for selecting early-career Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellows; prospective applicants should read the ROSES-2017 program element carefully.

Based on the findings of the 2016 Senior Review of Astrophysics operating missions, NASA is continuing all of the missions that were reviewed for extended missions in 2017 and 2018. End-of-mission plans have been approved for the completion of the Spitzer and Kepler/K2 missions in 2019. 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/.

NASA continues to make progress developing the James Webb Space Telescope according to plan during the integration and test phase. The telescope, and instruments have been integrated into a science payload, and ambient testing of the science payload has started at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the spacecraft assembly is nearly complete at Northrop Grumman Space Park in Redondo Beach, California; and the third and final test of the pathfinder telescope and ground support equipment has been completed in the large Chamber A thermal-vacuum environmental test chamber at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In 2017, the ambient testing of the science payload will be completed, and it will be shipped to Johnson Space Center where end-to-end performance testing of the telescope and instruments will be conducted in space-like conditions within Chamber A. In addition, the spacecraft and sunshields will be completed and integrated. This year, 2017, is also the year that the science community begins developing the Webb Telescope’s science program. The call for Early Release science was issued in January 2017, and the call for Cycle 1 General Observer proposals will be issued in November 2017. Webb remains on cost and on schedule for an October 2018 launch. Information on the Webb Telescope is at https://jwst.nasa.gov/, and information on the proposal opportunities is at https://jwst.stsci.edu/.

NASA is working toward a System Requirements Review in June 2017, and the start of Phase B in October 2017, for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). The WFIRST Formulation Science Working Group is developing the science requirements for WFIRST, and these science requirements will guide the mission design and mission capabilities. The technology development of the next-generation detectors and the coronagraph instrument is on schedule. WFIRST does not have a starshade; however, independent of the WFIRST project, NASA is developing the starshade technology that would be required for a starshade mission that could work with WFIRST. Such a starshade mission could be considered by the 2020 Decadal Survey. Information on WFIRST is at https://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

The National Academies conducted a review of NASA’s progress during the first half of the decade, and NASA’s plans during the second half of the decade, for implementing the 2010 Decadal Survey. This Midterm Assessment, available at http://www.nap.edu/download/23560, made recommendations to NASA regarding its implementation of WFIRST, the Explorers Program, and U.S. contributions to the European Space Agency’s Euclid, Athena, and gravitational wave missions. NASA will be implementing all of the Midterm Assessment’s recommendations; the full details can be found in the 2016 Astrophysics Implementation Plan Update at https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/.

NASA is sponsoring community-based studies in preparation for the 2020 Decadal Survey. Four mission concept studies for large missions are underway. Each study is being led by a Science and Technology Development Team supported by the engineering capabilities of a NASA Center. The entire community is invited to get involved with one or more of these studies; links to each of the studies is at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/2020-decadal-survey-planning/. NASA has also solicited proposals to conduct mission concept studies for medium-size missions, and expects to select five to eight proposals by March 2017.

My entire Town Hall presentation from the January AAS meeting, which includes information on additional topics across the breadth of NASA astrophysics, is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents/.

Paul Hertz
Director, Astrophysics Division
Science Mission Directorate
January 2017

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