Brendan Crill, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Deputy Program Technologist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program
Technologists in the Exoplanet Exploration Program seek to identify and invest in technology needed for future space observatories that will directly image and characterize exoplanets, in particular Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zones of their stars. We look beyond missions that are currently being built or in development (for example the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST] and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope [WFIRST]), so that when a mission is selected, NASA will have the technical capability to achieve these ambitious science goals.
To help focus our technology investments, we maintain prioritized Technology Gap Lists that are updated annually; the most recent list was released in December 2016. The technology gap list is mainly focused on technical developments needed to construct coronagraphs and starshades, two types of occulters that block the light from a host star, more easily bringing an orbiting exoplanet into view.
In 2016, NASA kicked off four large mission studies in advance of the 2020 decadal survey, and two of these include exoplanet science requiring direct imaging as a centerpiece. The Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) and the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) are both considering the use of an advanced coronagraph and/or starshade, with capabilities beyond what is currently available for WFIRST, to observe Earth-like exoplanets. The latest 2017 Technology Gap List reflects the needs of these missions, as they provide concrete examples of a possible future exoplanet-finding mission.
As the LUVOIR and HabEx teams continue to define their requirements during their three-year studies, we will continue to refine the Technology Gap List and correspondingly target technology investments, for example through SAT/TDEM opportunities and in directed programs such as the Starshade Technology, to help close these gaps. In addition, each year, we seek input from the exoplanet science and technology community as to what technology capabilities are missing, and how best to prioritize these. This is done at the ExoPAG meetings, and by the involvement of the Technology Assessment Committee throughout the entire process. At the summer 2017 ExoPAG meeting we will kick off the annual technology gap list update for 2018.
Please visit the ExEP Technology web page for more information and to see the Technology Gap List for 2017.