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Issue 17 - March 2017

Please visit Latest Update: March 2017
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  1. WFIRST Happenings
  2. Kepler and K2 Update
  3. What do Loch Ness, Kitt Peak, and NN-EXPLORE have in common? NESSI
  4. Annual Technology Gap List report
  5. Exoplanet science update
  6. A Busy Year for Exoplanets at the NASA Exoplanet Archive
  7. HabEx study concept moves ahead
  8. LUVOIR study concept refined
  9. Exoplanet Studies with the Origins Space Telescope
  10. The Restructured Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowship (RTF) Program
  11. Exoplanet Program Public Engagement Update

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Director's Update


Program Update




Message from Paul Hertz,
NASA Astrophysics
Division Director

2017A GO awards announced

Update from Gary Blackwood,
NASA Exoplanet Exploration
Program Manager

1. WFIRST Happenings

Editor's note: Dr. Neil Gehrels of the Goddard Space Flight Center passed away on Feb. 6. He began his career there after earning his doctorate from Caltech in 1982, becoming world renowned for gamma ray astronomy. He was named chief of Goddard's Astroparticle Physics Laboratory in 1995. He served as a project scientist and investigator on a number of landmark missions, among them the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Dr. Gehrels wrote this update on the WFIRST mission just a few weeks before his death; it is published here as a tribute to him.

Neil Gehrels, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Chief, Astroparticle Physics Laboratory

2016 will go down as a memorable year for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). We started the year with a huge NASA review. It was called KDP-A (critical design point A), and was our opportunity to convince NASA that WFIRST was ready to move into Phase A. Importantly, this step is the one to make WFIRST an official NASA mission with a budget line in the high-level NASA budgets. The final step was a presentation to top NASA management, chaired by the NASA Associate Administrator and including the Heads of NASA's Directorates, Center Directors and representatives from the Exoplanet Program office and WFIRST project.

A lot has been happening since the review. On the technology side, the Coronagraph and the Wide Field Instrument infrared detectors have passed their technology milestones on schedule. It is so amazing to see these large high-tech instruments start to take shape. On the science-center side, there is a good working relationship formed between Goddard, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). We had a meeting at Princeton organized by David Spergel to discuss organizing early data challenges to get thinking going on data processing. There have been regular meetings organized by Jeremy Kasdin to move the coronagraph hardware and data aspects forward.

Read more here...

2. Kepler and K2 Update

Charlie Sobeck, NASA Ames Research Center
Kepler/K2 Project Manager

2017 marks the final year of the Kepler mission, while K2 continues to gather new science data. Last August, the final Kepler photometric products - a complete set of reprocessed short cadence data - were made available through the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST: The data collected from the K2 mission are available at MAST through Campaign 10 ( K2 is currently in its twelfth campaign.

The Kepler mission is nearing the completion of its final catalog, which will be delivered through the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute's (NExScI's) Exoplanet Archive ( in time to support the 2017 Astrophysical Data Analysis Program in the early spring timeframe. The first deliveries of the final Occurrence Rate Products designed to allow researchers to investigate the demographics of exoplanets in unique ways will also be delivered at this time. All final data deliveries will follow shortly thereafter. The Kepler and K2 missions will host a science conference at Ames Research Center in June 2017 (, the final such conference for the Kepler mission.

Read more here...

3. What do Loch Ness, Kitt Peak, and NN-EXPLORE have in common? NESSI


Steve B. Howell, NASA Ames Research Center
Senior Research Scientist

The NN-EXPLORE program provides about 50 percent of the observing time on the Kitt Peak WIYN (Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO) 3.5-meter telescope to the exoplanet community. WIYN’s suite of instruments include HYDRA, a multi-fiber medium to high-resolution bench spectrograph, WHIRC, a near-IR imager, ODI, an optical wide-field optical imager, and for over a decade, a visiting speckle camera called DSSI (Horch et al. 2009). The telescope’s instruments also include several integral field units, bundles of optical fiber that feed light from the telescope to an instrument, in this case a spectrograph, that lives in an environmentally controlled room in the WIYN telescope basement. Beginning in 2017, thanks to funding support from the NASA Exoplanet program, DSSI has been replaced by a modern, more functional, community available observatory instrument named NESSI.

NESSI, the NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet & Stellar Speckle Imager, was commissioned during the fall of 2016 and is now available for community use. Speckle imaging allows telescopes to achieve diffraction limited imaging performance--that is, collecting images with resolutions equal to that which would be possible if the atmosphere were removed. The technique employs digital cameras capable of reading out frames at a very fast rate, effectively "freezing out" atmospheric seeing. The resulting speckles are correlated and combined in Fourier space to produce reconstructed images with resolutions at the diffraction limit of the telescope (see Howell et al., 2011). Achievable spatial resolutions at WIYN are 39 milliarcseconds (550 nanometers) and 64 milliarcseconds (880 nanometers).

Read more here...

4. Annual Technology Gap List report

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.

Read more here...

5. Exoplanet science update

Eric Mamajek, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Deputy Program Chief Scientist for NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program

The past year has been rather eventful on the exoplanet front. Over 1,500 confirmed exoplanets were added to the census of planets maintained at the NASA Exoplanet Archive in 2016, mostly from validation of Kepler Objects of Interest, or KOIs. Dozens of new planets were discovered and characterized from the K2 mission.

Two of the biggest discoveries over the past year involved finding Earth-size planets orbiting in the habitable zones around nearby stars: the nearest M dwarf Proxima Centauri, and the discovery of the amazing seven-planet transiting system TRAPPIST-1. Unfortunately Proxima Centauri b does not appear to transit its star, but the discovery has spurred numerous theoretical investigations of the properties of the planet, accounting for the properties of its host star. Recent results from characterizing the masses and radii of transiting exoplanets would seem to suggest that Proxima b is almost certainly a rocky world. The remarkable TRAPPIST-1 system contains no less than seven planets with radii ranging from about 71 percent to 113 percent of Earth's radius. The compact system of planets all orbit within about 10 million kilometers of their tiny host star.

Read more here...

6. A Busy Year for Exoplanets at the NASA Exoplanet Archive

Rachel Akeson, California Institute of Technology
Deputy Director, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute

The NASA Exoplanet Archive, launched in 2011, is an online astronomical exoplanet and stellar catalog and data service that collates and cross-correlates data on exoplanets and their host stars. The archive also provides tools to work with these data, such as interactive tables containing data that can be filtered, downloaded and exported, a tool for periodogram calculations, a Kepler light curve viewer, and a service that predicts exoplanet transit times.

2016 was one of the archive's busiest, with an increasing number of planet discoveries, new data from Kepler, K2, the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) survey and other projects, and the release of new tools and user-requested features. In one year alone we added 1,521 newly confirmed planets and their stellar and planetary parameters from the published literature, including 1,284 Kepler exoplanets validated in Morton et al. 2016, as well as Proxima Centauri b and other planets that made the news. As of February 2017, the total number of exoplanets in the archive is more than 3,440. The archive also added a new table of emission spectroscopy data, similar to the existing transmission spectroscopy table.

Read more here...

7. HabEx study concept moves ahead

Bertrand Mennesson, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Study Scientist for the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission Study

The Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) is one of four mission concepts currently being studied by NASA in preparation for the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey. The HabEx mission concept is a large (about 4 to 6.5 meter) stable optical telescope in space with unprecedented resolution to directly image exoplanets and enable galactic, extragalactic, and solar system astrophysics. The HabEx concept is ripe for development, being both technologically and scientifically implementable in the next decade.

The primary goal of HabEx is, for the first time, to directly image and characterize Earth-like exoplanets. However, HabEx will also study the full range of exoplanets, providing in particular the first complete "family portraits" of planets around our nearest sun-like neighbors.

Read more here...

8. LUVOIR study concept refined

Aki Roberge, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Study Scientist for LUVOIR

The Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR) is a concept for a highly capable, multi-wavelength observatory with ambitious science goals. This mission would enable great leaps forward in a broad range of science, from the epoch of reionization, through galaxy formation and evolution, star and planet formation, to solar system remote sensing. LUVOIR also has the major goal of characterizing large numbers of exoplanets, including those that might be habitable -- or even inhabited. A Decadal Mission Concept Study for LUVOIR began in Jan 2016; further information on all aspects of the study is available at

Under the direction of a 24-member Science and Technology Definition Team (STDT), the LUVOIR study has made excellent progress since its inception. Three public meetings of the STDT have taken place; one of these meetings was held jointly with the HabEx STDT. The LUVOIR team has also participated in a number of other conferences, including a full-day special meeting to build bridges with technologists and European scientists, held in conjunction with last summer's SPIE conference in Edinburgh. Information on future STDT meetings (and remote participation info) may be found in the "Events" tab on the LUVOIR website.

Read more here...

9. Exoplanet Studies with the Origins Space Telescope

Asantha Cooray, University of California, Irvine
Margaret Meixner, Space Telescope Science Institute
Origins Space Telescope Science and Technology Definition Team

The Origins Space Telescope (OST) is the mission concept for the Far-Infrared Surveyor, one of the four large-mission science and technology definition studies sponsored by NASA for the 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal survey. The mission has four science themes: (i) Characterizing small bodies in the outer solar system; (ii) Tracing the signatures of life and the ingredients of habitable worlds; (iii) Unveiling the growth of black holes and galaxies over cosmic time; and (iv) Charting the rise of metals, dust and the first galaxies. We outline the science drivers related to extra-solar planets.

Read more here...

10. The Restructured Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowship (RTF) Program

Billy Lightsey, Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowships Program Officer

The Astrophysics Division initiated the Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowships (RTF) Program in 2011 in response to a recommendation from the Astrophysics Subcommittee (APS). RTF proposals are solicited through Element D.9 of the annual Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitation. The purpose of the RTF program is to foster the career development of astrophysics instrumentation technologists who are within seven years of obtaining a PhD. The program provides the leverage of a named fellowship title and laboratory startup funds to help advance the Fellow's career.

The original RTF solicitation involved a two-step process, where, during the first phase called the Concept Phase, selected applicants developed an in-depth plan and proposal for a four-year Development Phase effort. This Development Phase proposal was peer reviewed approximately nine months after the start of the Concept Phase, and the successful proposers continued their technology development efforts as Fellows for an additional four years.

Read more here...

11. Exoplanet Program Public Engagement Update

Anya Biferno and Pat Brennan, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program

The Exoplanet Program's Public Engagement team launched a new thematic website combining the PlanetQuest public engagement website with the Exoplanet Program site for professionals. The new site is Among many new features of the site is the Strange New Worlds gallery ( which combines many of the features of Eyes on Exoplanets into a browser based format--while still leveraging the power of the NASA Exoplanet Archive.

At September's Star Trek: Mission New York convention, the Exoplanet Program led an exoplanet-themed area within the NASA Headquarters booth, coordinating representation from the Program Office (JPL), Kepler/K2 (Ames) and TESS (Goddard) missions. The booth presence was combined with social media activities including a Facebook Live event, a Snapchat story, and a special NASA Tumblr post.

Read more about Baby Kepler (pictured above) here...

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February 22, 2017
Largest batch of Earth-size, habitable zone planets
January 27, 2017
A four-planet system in orbit, directly imaged and remarkable
January 9, 2017
Hubble captures 'shadow play' caused by possible planet
December 30, 2016
Top 5 exoplanet moments of 2016
December 20, 2016
Interstellar: Crossing the cosmic void
December 15, 2016
Neptune-mass outer planets likely common around other stars
December 15, 2016
Are planets like those in Star Wars 'Rogue One' really out there?
October 18, 2016
Cloudy nights, sunny days on distant hot Jupiters
September 6, 2016
To boldly go: How 'Star Trek' inspired NASA's planet hunters
August 24, 2016
ESO discovers Earth-size planet in habitable zone of nearest star


IAUS 330: Astrometry and Astrophysics in the Gaia Sky
April 24-28

Location: Nice, France
Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2017
April 24-28

Location: Mesa, Arizona
Exoplanet Science with Small Telescopes: Precise Radial Velocities
April 24-26

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Radio Exploration of Planetary Habitability - An AAS Topical Conference
May 7-12

Location: Indian Wells, California
Impacts in planetary systems
May 15-17

Location: Lund Observatory, Sweden
2nd Advanced School on Exoplanetary Science: Astrophysics of Exoplanetary Atmospheres
May 22-26

Location: Vietri sul Mare, Italy
The migration issue: from protoplanets to supermassive black holes
May 22-24

Location: Cambridge, United Kingdom
Protoplanetary Disks and Planet Formation and Evolution
May 29 - June 23

Location: Munich, Germany
Gordon Research Seminar Origins of Solar Systems: The Foundations of Planets
June 17-18

Location: South Hadley, Massachusetts
Gordon Research Seminar Origins of Solar Systems: Making a Habitable Planet
June 18-23

Location: South Hadley, Massachusetts
Kepler & K2 Science Conference IV
June 19-23

Location: Moffett Field, California
Exoplanet science in the coming decade: The bright and nearby future
June 26-27

Location: Prague
Astronomy in the 2020s: Synergies with WFIRST
June 26-28

Location: Baltimore, Maryland
WASP Planets: Transiting exoplanets from the Wide Angle Search for Planets
July 17-21

Location: Keele University, United Kingdom
Celebrating 25 Years of the OGLE Project
July 24-28

Location: Warsaw, Poland
Precision Spectroscopy: Towards Earth 2.0
August 1-4

Location: Sao Paulo, Brazil
2017 Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop: Microlensing in the Era of WFIRST
August 1-4

Location: Pasadena, California
Third Workshop on Extremely Precise Radial Velocities EPRV III
August 14-17

Location: University Park, Virginia
The PLATO Mission Conference 2017: Exoplanetary Systems in the PLATO Era
September 5-7

Location: University of Warwick, United Kingdom
The Many Scales of the Universe: Galaxies, Their Suns, and Their Planets
September 18-22

Location: Gottingen, Germany
Planet Formation and Evolution 2017
September 25-27

Location: Jena, Germany
Know Thy Star - Know Thy Planet: Assessing the Relevance of Ground-based High Resolution Imaging and Spectroscopy of Exoplanet Host Stars
October 8-11

Location: Pasadena, California
Habitable Worlds 2017: A System Science Workshop
November 13-17

Location: Laramie, Wyoming
Astrobiology 2017, Research Meeting by IAU's Commission F3
November 26 - December 1

Location: Coyhaique, Chile


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