Issue 12 - October 2013
By Gary Blackwood, Manager, Exoplanet Exploration Program Office What's happening with the coronagraph for the Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA)? The AFTA Coronagraph Working Group is in full swing. We’ve held two workshops with leading representatives from the field, and plan two more prior to December. The purpose is to choose a primary and backup coronagraph architecture to focus technology and design investments prior to a possible new mission start at the beginning of fiscal year 2017. The AFTA Science Definition Team has developed preliminary science requirements, and the working group has developed analysis tools to describe instrument performance and science yield of six different options (and their combinations). Recommendation criteria will be science, technical, programmatic, and risk, and these were described at ExoPAG-8 in Denver on October 5 and 6. A joint recommendation will be made by the Exoplanet Exploration Program Office Manager and the AFTA Study Office Manager, and the Astrophysics Director will make the final decision. How are technology priorities being set? Technology priorities have been established by the program office for both the starshade and the coronagraph (both on-axis for AFTA, and for off-axis). The purpose is to maximize the technology readiness, typically to TRL 5 at new mission start and to TRL 6 at the start of the implementation phase. Those dates are notionally at the start of fiscal year 2017 and 2019, respectively, for both AFTA or any exoplanet probes alternatives. The AFTA coronagraph priorities are being used by the AFTA Study Office to focus directed funds on the gaps of highest priority and urgency. For non-AFTA coronagraph and starshade technologies, the program office will work with the community to plan near- and medium-term work on those priorities starting from the top of the list. Recently, the two probe-scale Science and Technology Definition Teams (one for starshade, one for coronagraph) have independently produced technology priority lists, and these will now inform what the program carries. It’s our hope that, despite limits on funding, significant work can be accomplished on the most important and urgent tasks, and we will be able to show that mission concept reports are technically viable in addition to being scientifically compelling. What are you looking forward to as Program Manager? Exozodiacal dust measurements, at the level needed for future Earth-characterizer missions, will become available as soon as the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI) enters its final season of commissioning. We eagerly anticipate the outcome of the Kepler two-wheel evaluation, given the strong community interest and response. I especially look forward to engaging the exoplanet community at the ExoPAG-9 in Washington, DC, just prior to the January AAS meeting.