The NASA Astrophysics Division is also reorganizing its near-term efforts and drafting a new implementation plan that will guide its Programs (Physics of the Cosmos, Cosmic Origins, and Exoplanet Exploration) toward a mid-decade review. The priorities for space astrophysics are set each decade by the National Academies Decadal Survey, the latest being the 2010 report New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The report’s highest priority for space was a mission called the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which would search for dark energy, find microlensing exoplanets, and also survey the sky at infrared wavelengths. Since 2010, several mission concepts for WFIRST have been studied and costed, and this mission remains the likely front-runner as the next big astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. However, so much has changed since 2010, that as we head toward the mid-decade, NASA will also be considering options for smaller “Probe-scale” mission concepts – including of course concepts for the direct-imaging of exoplanets. In the new plan, NASA will chose one concept from amongst WFIRST and other candidates and bring it to the mid-decade review, as NASA’s new path forward. The review by the National Academies will then be an opportunity for the astrophysics community to assess NASA’s progress in support of the Decadal Survey recommendations. The new plan should appear by the time of the next meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in January 2013 in Long Beach, California.
The wild-card in these plans is the space-qualified 2.4-m telescope that was made available to NASA earlier this year. (A second partly finished telescope and parts for a third are also available.) Similar in size to the Hubble Space Telescope, but with faster optics and a wider field of view, it appears extremely well-suited to WFIRST science. The excitement over the prospect of also using this telescope for direct imaging of exoplanets was evident at the NEW Telescope Meeting in Princeton earlier in September. NASA and the Exoplanet Program are funding studies for the 2.4-m telescope to see how it might be used not only for Decadal Survey science, but also in support of NASA’s interests in other science topics, new technology, and human spaceflight. These studies are being put on a fast-track to finish by the end of April 2013.
The Exoplanet Program is looking forward to working with the community and charting its way forward to new opportunities in exoplanet science!