With the James Webb Space Telescope now declared ‘a fully assembled observatory’ by NASA, environmental tests loom for the instrument, which is now slated for launch in March of 2021. Within that context, we need to place WFIRST (Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope), whose development was delayed for several years because of cost overruns on JWST. Recall that WFIRST was the top priority for a flagship mission in the last astrophysics Decadal Survey.

The good news is that NASA has just announced that WFIRST has passed what it is calling ‘a critical programmatic and technical milestone,’ which opens the path to hardware development and testing. With a viewing area 100 times larger than the Hubble instrument, WFIRST will be able to investigate dark energy and dark matter while at the same time examining exoplanets by using microlensing techniques applied to the inner Milky Way. Its exoplanet capabilities could be significantly extended if additional budgeting for a coronagraph — which would allow direct imaging of exoplanets — winds up being approved.

And that is a big ‘if.’ No one doubts the power of a coronagraph onboard WFIRST to block the light of a central star in order to examine any planets found around it, but this telescope has already suffered considerable budget anxiety, leading NASA to separate the coronagraph, now described as a ‘technology demonstration,’ from the $3.2 billion budget estimate. Adding the coronagraph and subsequent operations would take the total WFIRST tally to $3.9 billion.

Image: This graphic shows a simulation of a WFIRST observation of M31, also known as the Andromeda galaxy. Hubble used more than 650 hours to image areas outlined in blue. Using WFIRST, covering the entire galaxy would take only three hours. Credits: DSS, R. Gendle, NASA, GSFC, ASU, STScI, B. F. Williams.

Will Congress approve funding for the coronagraph, or will WFIRST fly without it? Will WFIRST fly at all, given that Congress has already had to save the telescope twice from cancellation? The current FY2021 budget request proposes terminating the telescope, but it continues to receive congressional support and remains on schedule for a 2025 launch. It should be noted that a coronagraph was not part of the Decadal Survey’s recommendations, which factors into the discussion and may put pressure on those hoping to raise the needed additional funding.

Note this from NASA’s March 2 statement:

The FY2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act funds the WFIRST program through September 2020. The FY2021 budget request proposes to terminate funding for the WFIRST mission and focus on the completion of the James Webb Space Telescope, now planned for launch in March 2021. The Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar telescope until Webb has been successfully launched and deployed.

The expectation is that Congress will keep WFIRST in the budget but the corongraph remains an open question. So the first priority is keeping the mission alive, while it’s clear that the cost overruns that have so exasperated astronomers and politicians alike with the James Webb instrument have played a role in keeping the brakes on WFIRST spending. As we saw recently in these pages, the Decadal Surveys (from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) set science priorities for NASA and other science agencies. The lack of a coronagraph within the last astrophysics Decadal Survey doesn’t help its chances now.