Issue 16 - April 2016
New Chief Scientist and Chief Engineer named
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...
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...
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...
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:
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!
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: http://keplerscience.arc.nasa.gov/k2-fields.html.
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: http://keplerscience.arc.nasa.gov/k2-c9.html.
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.
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: http://exep.jpl.nasa.gov/NNExplore/) 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 http://ast.noao.edu/observing/proposal-info.
For more detailed analysis, read the full article here...
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...
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: https://exep.jpl.nasa.gov/files/exep/HabExSTDT.pdf and for the LUVOIR study here: http://cor.gsfc.nasa.gov/studies/luvoir.php. Updates on the studies will be posted here: http://exep.jpl.nasa.gov/dstdt/.
Read more about both studies here...
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: http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/exoplanettravelbureau), and an entire series from around the solar system was launched at JPL (you can find those images here: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/).
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 (https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/galleries/all/) and a new exoplanet film, 'The Search for Another Earth' (http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/video/80), 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!