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Issue 16 - April 2016
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  1. Rising Stars: NASA Announces Astronomy and Astrophysics Fellows for 2016
  2. WFIRST Enters Formulation Phase
  3. WFIRST Formulation Science Investigation Teams (SITs) Selected
  4. WFIRST's Occulting Mask Coronagraph Testbed Incorporates Several Firsts for High-Contrast Imaging
  5. K2 - Planets to Dark Energy
  6. NN-EXPLORE: Accurate Stellar Characterization for Kepler Mission Exoplanet Host Stars
  7. NASA Selects Instrument Team to Build Next-Gen Planet Hunter
  8. Direct imaging of exoplanets: new studies clear a path to 2020 Decadal Survey
  9. ExEP Celebrates 20 Years of Exoplanets

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Director's Update

New Chief Scientist and Chief Engineer named

Program Update




Message from Paul Hertz,
NASA Astrophysics
Division Director

Chief Scientist Karl Stapelfeldt
Chief Engineer Keith Warfield

Update from Gary Blackwood,
NASA Exoplanet Exploration
Program Manager

1. Rising Stars: NASA announces Astronomy and Astrophysics Fellows for 2016

Excerpted from March 25th press release

NASA has selected 36 fellows for its prestigious Einstein, Hubble and Sagan fellowships. Each post-doctoral fellowship provides three years of support to awardees to pursue independent research in astronomy and astrophysics. The new fellows will begin their programs in the fall of 2016 at a host university or research center of their choosing in the United States.

The 2016 Class of Sagan Fellows covers almost all aspects of exoplanet research: from the theory and observation of forming planets and the study of exoplanet atmospheres, to the architecture of planetary systems and the search for habitable exo-Earths. With their innovative ideas, technical skills and leadership abilities, these young scientists will expand the frontiers of the exciting field of astrophysics.

Meet the 2016 Sagan Fellows and read the full press release here...

2. WFIRST Enters Formulation Phase

By Ingolf Heinrichsen, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Program Office Mission Manager for WFIRST

After years of preparatory studies, NASA is formally starting an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe -- the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

The NASA Agency Program Management Council passed the mission through its Key Decision Point A (KDP-A) on February 17th and turned the study into an actual flight project in its formulation phase. Up to this point, the study was known under the acronym WFIRST-AFTA, for its use of the 2.4m telescope asset and to distinguish it from earlier similar studies. It has now dropped the AFTA moniker and from now on, it is simply known as the WFIRST mission.

Slated to launch in the mid-2020s, the observatory will begin its 6-year operations after traveling to a gravitational balance point known as Sun-Earth L2, which is located about one million miles from Earth directly opposite the Sun.

The mission is led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which will also build the spacecraft and the wide-field camera instrument in addition to integrating and testing the complete flight system. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California will manage the mission's 7.8-foot (2.4-meter) telescope, built by the Harris Corporation, and deliver the coronagraph instrument. The Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland will share the science center activities, under Goddard leadership.

Read the full press release here...

3. WFIRST Formulation Science Investigation Teams (SITs) Selected


NASA announced on December 17, 2015 the selection of the following Formulation Science Investigation Teams for the WFIRST mission. These teams will work for 5 years with the NASA and Project teams on science requirements, mission design and scientific performance predictions for the mission.

The list of Principal Investigators can be found here...

4. WFIRST's Occulting Mask Coronagraph Testbed Incorporates Several Firsts for High-Contrast Imaging

By By Ilya Poberezhskiy, WFIRST Coronagraph Testbed Manager, and Hong Tang, High Contrast Imaging Testbed (HCIT) Facility Manager, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This February, for the first time, the dynamic Occulting Mask Coronagraph (OMC) testbed was placed into HCIT-1 vacuum tank to commence the work on the last, and most challenging, WFIRST system-level coronagraph milestone #9. This advanced testbed has many new features for more realistic testing of space coronagraphs:

  • Masks and stops for two coronagraph modes (Shaped Pupil and Hybrid Lyot) on the same testbed - similar to WFIRST flight coronagraph instrument - with mechanisms to remotely switch between these two modes
  • A scaled mini-WFIRST telescope simulator with a representative obscured pupil that can produce expected on-orbit disturbances such as telescope pointing errors and thermal drifts
  • A low-order wavefront sensor that uses the rejected "star" light and is capable of both sensing angstrom-level wavefront errors and controlling a fast-steering mirror, focus adjustment, and a deformable mirror to mitigate ob-orbit disturbances that degrade contrast
  • Highly stable and extensively modeled optical mounts to enable the validation of coronagraph bench structural, thermal, optical, performance (STOP) models

Improvements were also made to the vacuum chamber's mechanical isolation, thermal insulation, and stray light control.The WFIRST coronagraph team and the HCIT facility team have worked for over a year to design, model, build, test and integrate all the components and subsystems that went into this new high-fidelity testbed. Now the hard work of demonstrating that WFIRST coronagraph works in a simulated on-orbit environment really begins!

  • WFIRST is a NASA project managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center
  • WFIRST coronagraph instrument is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • HCIT is a NASA facility funded by the Exoplanet Program Office

5. K2 - Planets to Dark Energy

STDT banner
By Steve Howell, NASA Ames Research Center, Kepler/K2 Project Scientist
and Knicole Colon, NASA Ames Research Center, Kepler/K2 Guest Observer Office Research Scientist

We are coming up on the 7th anniversary of the launch of the Kepler spacecraft and the 2nd year of operation of the K2 mission. K2 is unique in that it observes the Ecliptic (the Zodiac) in the sky in 80-day campaigns, durations that are limited by solar angle constraints. With this setup, K2 offers a wide variety of science return. You can find an overview of all K2 Campaign fields here:

Science unique to K2 includes a microlensing campaign, which will begin in early April 2016 and is a WFIRST-like observational program that involves tens of ground-based telescopes planning to provide simultaneous observations. You can find more information about the K2 Campaign 9 Microlensing experiment here:

In exoplanet science, K2 observes everything from O and B stars to late M stars, brown dwarfs, and even white dwarfs. This sample consists of bright stars allowing easy RV follow-up and nearby stars providing good platforms for high resolution imaging follow-up. Exoplanets being discovered by K2 are generally small (<4 Earth radii), with some orbiting in or near the Habitable Zone and with many able to have masses measured. In particular, the cool, rocky planets K2-18b and K2-3b will be two of the first JWST exoplanet targets for which atmospheric composition may be measured.

At the other end of the spectrum, K2 is providing cosmologists with information to unlock the secrets of supernova (SN) explosions. K2's observations of thousands of galaxies are yielding many dozens of SN light curves, captured and well sampled in the first few hours to days. For Type II SN, this provides observations of the shock breakout and determinations of the collapsing star radius. K2 can also identify the progenitors of Type Ia SN, which to date, appear to be coalescing white dwarfs.

6. NN-EXPLORE: Accurate Stellar Characterization for Kepler Mission Exoplanet Host Stars

Photo of Verne Smith
By Verne V. Smith, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, NOAO System Science Center Director

The Kepler mission has had an enormous impact on observational studies of exoplanet systems as a result of its mission to detect planetary transits from Earth-sized planets orbiting solar-type stars in the habitable zone. Since the transit depth reveals primarily the ratio of exoplanet radius to host star radius, the derived physical size of the planet depends on knowing the physical size of the host star. In addition, measuring the mass of the exoplanet from the reflex stellar radial velocity requires knowledge of the host stellar mass. Thus, exoplanet studies are inextricably tied to stellar astrophysics. The more accurately these stellar parameters can be determined, the more accurately exoplanet properties can be determined.

As part of the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research (NN-EXPLORE) program, our team is using the WIYN/Hydra echelle spectrograph (Kitt Peak, Tucson, Arizona) to provide high-resolution (R~25,000) spectra of Kepler exoplanet host stars that we then analyze to determine accurate stellar parameters and detailed chemical compositions. (Learn more about NN-EXPLORE here: The figure here shows a short wavelength piece of a Hydra spectrum for the near-solar twin exoplanet host star Kepler 452; whose Earth-size planet is sometimes referred to as Earth 2.0.

After receiving study reports from two teams, NASA has selected the NEID instrument (PI Dr. Suvrath Mahadevan, Penn State) for development. NEID is an Extreme Precision Doppler Spectrometer (EPDS) that will be commissioned on the WIYN telescope by 2019.

NASA will also manage an exoplanet-targeted Guest Observer program with existing instrumentation. Call for proposals are issued by NOAO and due on the normal semester schedule. Deadlines are the last day in September for the following "A" semester (February 1 - July 31) and the last day in March for the following "B" semester (August 1 - January 31). Proposal submission information can be found at

For more detailed analysis, read the full article here...

7. NASA Selects Instrument Team to Build Next-Gen Planet Hunter

HR 8799
Excerpted from March 29th press release

NASA has selected a team to build a new, cutting-edge instrument that will detect planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, by measuring the miniscule "wobbling" of stars. The instrument will be the centerpiece of a new partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research program, or NN-EXPLORE.

The instrument, named NEID (pronounced "nee-id"), which is short for NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy, will measure the tiny back-and-forth wobble of a star caused by the gravitational tug of a planet in orbit around it. The wobble tells scientists there is a planet orbiting the star, and the size of the wobble indicates how massive the planet is.

The highly precise instrument, to be built by a Pennsylvania State University research group led by Dr. Suvrath Mahadevan, will be completed in 2019 and installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Read more about the NEID instrument here...

8. Direct Imaging of Exoplanets: New Studies Clear a Path to 2020 Decadal Survey

HR 8799
By Bertrand Mennesson, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, HabEx Study Scientist
and Aki Roberge, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, LUVOIR Study Scientist

Two mission studies of large space borne telescopes are now underway in anticipation of NASA's 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. NASA has announced the membership for the flagship mission Science and Technology Definition Teams (STDTs). You can find the membership for the HabEx study here: and for the LUVOIR study here: Updates on the studies will be posted here:

Read more about both studies here...

9. ExEP Celebrates 20 Years of Exoplanets

By Anya Biferno, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Program Public Engagement Specialist

2015 marked a banner year for public engagement activities. The Exoplanet Travel Bureau poster series debuted in January 2015; the first three were so successful that two new posters were created (you can find all five here:, and an entire series from around the solar system was launched at JPL (you can find those images here:

The Program reached thousands of new people through participation in several large-scale events such as South by Southwest and Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day. The Program and partners created dozens of new products and materials ( and a new exoplanet film, 'The Search for Another Earth' (, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the discovery of 51 Pegasi b. Several celebratory events were held in October to mark the occasion. Additionally, a permanent 'Eyes on Exoplanets' kiosk was unveiled at the National Air and Space Museum and will introduce millions of visitors each year to the world of exoplanet discovery.

Looking to the future, ExEP Public Engagement will begin work as a Co-I on the new NASA's Universe of Learning initiative (PI, Space Telescope Science Institute). Other Co-Is include the Chandra X-ray Center, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, and Sonoma State University. NASA's Universe of Learning is an integrated Astrophysics STEM Learning and Literacy Program that seeks to advance STEM learning and literacy by creating and delivering a unified suite of education products, programs, and professional development that spans the full spectrum of NASA Astrophysics.

Coming soon: ExEP Public Engagement will be launching a new exciting web portal to exoplanet discovery - check us out in April!

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March 29, 2016
NASA selects instrument team to build next-gen planet hunter
March 21, 2016
Planet hunter breaks ground with supernovas
February 18, 2016
Let the great world spin
February 17, 2016
Veteran astronomer joins JPL exoplanet team
January 27, 2016
Combing the galaxy for habitable worlds
January 20, 2016
Far beyond Pluto, a possible Planet Nine awaits discovery
December 31, 2015
Year in Review: Top 5 exoplanet moments of 2015
December 15, 2015
8 alien planets that will make you believe Star Wars is real
November 19, 2015
Baby pictures: The first photos of a planet being born
November 3, 2015
These aren't the planets you're looking for
October 23, 2015
20 Intriguing Exoplanets
October 21, 2015
WFIRST-AFTA: Future planet finder
September 10, 2015
Oxygen on exoplanets isn't proof of life
September 4, 2015
Seeing Earth as an exoplanet: space probe spots nitrogen
August 17, 2015
How to teach 'exoplanets' and the search for habitable worlds
August 14, 2015
Exoplanet snapshot: New imager captures young 'Jupiter'
July 31, 2015
Exoplanets 20/20: Looking back to the future
July 23, 2015
NASA's Kepler mission discovers bigger, older cousin to Earth
July 23, 2015
Finding another Earth
July 8, 2015
Will the real 'first exoplanet' please stand up?
June 25, 2015
Can planets be rejuvenated around dead stars?
June 16, 2015
Finding out what makes hot Jupiters tick
May 13, 2015
The weather on alien worlds: astrophysicists prepare forecasts for planets beyond our solar system


32nd Space Symposium
April 11-14

Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado
High Contrast Imaging on Segmented Aperture Workshop
May 5-6

Location: Pasadena, California
Resolving Planet Formation in the Era of ALMA and Extreme AO
May 16-20

Location: Santiago, Chile
ExoPAG 14
June 11-12

Location: San Diego, California
228th American Astronomical Society
June 12-16

Location: San Diego, California
SPIE 2016 Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation
June 26-July 1

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Exoplanets I
July 3-8

Location: Davos, Switzerland
2016 Sagan Summer Workshop
July 18-22

Location: Pasadena, California
NEXSS Exoplanet Biosignatures Workshop
July 27-29

Location: Seattle, Washington
Approaching the Stellar Astrophysical Limits of Exoplanet Detection: Getting to 10 cm/s
August 28 - September 18

Location: Aspen, Colorado
AIAA Space 2016
September 13-16

Location: Long Beach, California


Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP)
PlanetQuest - Public Outreach Website
NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI)
NASA Science Astrophysics
NASA Cosmic Origins Program (COR)
NASA Physics of the Cosmos Program (PCOS)