NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission after the James Webb Space Telescope will become a formal project in February thanks to increased funding and direction from Congress, even as the agency looks to make cuts elsewhere in its astrophysics program.
NASA Astrophysics Director Paul Hertz told astronomers attending the 227th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Florida, Jan. 4 that the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will enter its “formulation phase,” the beginning of NASA’s project management process, in February after the proposed space telescope passed a mission concept review in December.
That decision also comes after the passage of the 2016 omnibus spending bill in December that provided $90 million for WFIRST, far above NASA’s request of $14 million. The report accompanying the bill directs NASA to move WFIRST into the formulation phase by early 2016.
The increase is not the first time Congress has added funding for WFIRST. NASA requested $14 million in 2015 but Congress appropriated $50 million. In 2014, Congress provided $56 million for WFIRST.
The intent of those increases was to accelerate a mission that astronomers identified as the highest-priority large mission in their 2010 decadal survey. NASA previously said it did not expect to formally start the WFIRST project until 2017, when spending on JWST is projected to decline.
NASA has been using the additional money to develop enabling technologies for a wide-field camera and a coronagraph that can be used to directly observe extrasolar planets. That work, Hertz said, has gone well.
“We have made every one of our milestones on schedule so far,” he said of that work. “We’re making fabulous progress in keeping on that plan that will enable us to do WFIRST in the shortest possible period.”
One scientist involved in WFIRST endorsed that approach. “This is really a good way to do a big mission like this,” said Neil Gehrels of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We can lower the risks and figure out the technologies before we get a large army developing the mission.”
NASA still plans to use of one of the 2.4-meter mirrors it got from the National Reconnaissance Office in 2012. The spacecraft will operate at the Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point for at least six years.
NASA will not provide an official cost and schedule estimate for WFIRST until later in the project’s development. In October, members of the WFIRST team estimated the mission would cost $2 billion to $2.3 billion and be ready for launch in August 2024.