Issue 12 - October 2013

Photo of Peter Lawson
Technology Update
By Peter Lawson
Exoplanet technology is in a period of transition right now. Back in May, Paul Hertz received the go-ahead from the NASA Administrator to continue studying how the Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) 2.4-meter telescope could be used to implement Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) science. With that approval, the AFTA coronagraph went from being a “proxy for an instrument” to an integral part of the ongoing study plans. However, for a coronagraph to be part of AFTA, it must demonstrate that it is ready -- and convincingly so by January 2015. That is when NASA Astrophysics will decide on its future path and begin pre-formulation activities for its next big mission. The Exoplanet Exploration Program is also studying mission concepts for coronagraphs and starshades for a cost cap of $1B, as there is no knowing if a presumably more expensive AFTA mission will in fact be funded. It’s getting so that you need a decoder ring to keep track of all the meetings of the different study groups. There is an AFTA Science Definition Team (SDT), an AFTA Coronagraph Working Group, a Probe Coronagraph Science and Technology Definition Team (STDT), and a Probe Starshade STDT. We of course have the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG) and its Science Analysis Groups (SAGs). All of these groups are keenly interested in the program’s plans for technology. To be ready by 2015, the program must make some hard choices and narrow down the technologies that are funded so as to make more rapid progress in very specific areas. For the AFTA coronagraph, we are on a track to recommend a primary and backup instrument concept by January 2015 -- out of the current pool of six existing concepts -- and then start to manufacture and test these designs in the lab. The probe coronagraph and starshade studies are also in the process of narrowing their options so as to arrive at their respective baseline designs for a recommended path forward. At the time of writing, the dust has yet to settle. Most of the decisions will be made before the end of 2013. The trades are being formulated based on the known technology gaps, the estimated technology development times, and the available funds. It all has to come together, and quickly. Stay tuned.