Issue 13 - Apr 2014

Photo of Gary Blackwood
Program Manager's Update
By Gary Blackwood, Manager, Exoplanet Exploration Program Office

What an exciting time to be working in the field of exoplanets: the science discoveries and technology progress keep coming, new talent is being drawn into and contributing to the field, and we are now designing the next generation of missions to directly image exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.

  • Just last month, the Kepler Project nearly doubled the number of validated planets by promoting 715 prior planet candidates on the basis of the statistical analysis of multiplanet systems. We eagerly anticipate the discoveries that will emerge as the fourth year of Kepler transit data is mined.

  • In October 2013, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope–Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (WFIRST-AFTA) mission entered pre-project development for a potential new start in FY17; this mission concept uses the available 2.4-meter telescope and state-of-the-art wide-field infrared detectors to deliver breakthrough science in dark energy, infrared survey, and a microlensing survey of long-period (including “rogue,” or free-floating) exoplanets.

  • WFIRST-AFTA now includes a visible coronagraph for direct imaging of gas-giant and ice-giant exoplanets. Between July and December 2013 over 30 members of the exoplanet community participated in a set of intense workshops to recommend a primary and a backup coronagraph architecture for the mission, which helped provide focus for near-term coronagraph design and technology investments. The consensus recommendation of the working group was made to the Astrophysics Division Director jointly by the Exoplanet Exploration Program and AFTA Study Office, and was based on the criteria of science capability, risk, technical readiness, and science opportunities.

  • The WFIRST-AFTA Study Office is now conducting directed technology development of these coronagraph masks and other enabling technologies; see the technology and science articles by Ilya Poberezhskiy ( and Wes Traub ( in this newsletter.

  • In parallel, the Exoplanet Exploration Program Office is developing two scientifically compelling and technologically viable probe-class ($1B) exoplanet mission concepts, one for an off-axis internal coronagraph and another for an external occulter (starshade) — see Interim reports by these two probe studies and by the WFIRST-AFTA mission concept were recently presented to the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics on March 4 — see

  • Since October, the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI) has made significant progress towards commissioning by achieving closed-loop fringe tracking on the sky, described further in this newsletter by NASA LBTI Project Scientist Rafael Millan-Gabet.

  • This newsletter also highlights the work of Sagan Fellow Nikole Lewis, one of 47 Fellows in the program since 1999.

  • The Exoplanet Exploration Program delivered a number of significant successes in 2013 and we look forward to even greater progress in 2014. The Program Office looks forward to working with each of you to advance the dynamic and growing exoplanet field.

    My program overview presentation from the January AAS meeting and the Kepler Science Conference II is available at