Over the next several months, NASA will review the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) project to help ensure it would provide compelling scientific capability with an appropriate, affordable cost and a reliable schedule.
“Developing large space missions is difficult,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is the right time for us to pause for an independent look at our plans to make sure we understand how long it will take, and how much it will cost, to build WFIRST.”
WFIRST is NASA’s next large space telescope under development, after the James Webb Space Telescope that is launching in 2018.
NASA has launched a series of large space telescopes over the past 27 years, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. In addition to being among the most productive science facilities ever built, all of these space telescopes share something else: They were all top recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics.
WFIRST, the top priority of the most recent Decadal Survey in 2010, would be as sensitive as the Hubble Space Telescope, but have 100 times its field of view; every WFIRST image would be like 100 Hubble images. It also would feature a demonstration instrument capable of directly detecting the reflected light from planets orbiting stars beyond the sun. Using these capabilities, WFIRST would study the dark energy that is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe, complete the demographic survey of planets orbiting other stars, answer questions about how galaxies and groups of galaxies form, study the atmospheres and compositions of planets orbiting other stars, and address other general astrophysics questions.
Recently, the National Academies conducted a midterm assessment of NASA’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the 2010 Decadal Survey. The Midterm Assessment Report recognized the continued compelling science value of WFIRST, finding that, “WFIRST [is] an ambitious and powerful facility that will significantly advance the scientific program envisioned by [the Decadal Survey], from the atmospheres of planets around nearby stars to the physics of the accelerating universe.”
The agency initiated the WFIRST project in 2016, beginning the formulation phase of the mission. Recognizing that cost growth in the planned WFIRST project could impact the balance of projects and research investigations across NASA’s astrophysics portfolio, the Midterm Assessment Report recommended that prior to proceeding to the next phase of the WFIRST project, “NASA should commission an independent technical, management, and cost assessment of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, including a quantitative assessment of the incremental cost of the coronagraph.”
NASA conducted an analogous independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope, but conducted it later in its development lifetime. That review resulted in a replan of the Webb development project in 2011, and the Webb project has remained within the replan cost and schedule ever since.
“NASA is a learning organization,” said Zurbuchen. “We are applying lessons we learned from Webb on WFIRST. “By conducting this review now, we can define the best way forward for this mission and the astrophysics community at large, in accordance with the academy guidance.”
The review panel members will be senior engineers, scientists, and project managers mostly from outside NASA who are independent of the WFIRST project. NASA will begin the review process after filling the review panel membership during the next few weeks. The panel is expected to complete its review and submit a report outlining its findings and recommendations within approximately two months. NASA intends to incorporate these recommendations into its design and plans for WFIRST before proceeding with development of the mission.