In the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the Astrophysics division studies the universe. The science goals of the SMD Astrophysics Division are breathtaking: we seek to understand the universe and our place in it. We are starting to investigate the very moment of creation of the universe and are close to learning the full history of stars and galaxies. We are discovering how planetary systems form and how environments hospitable for life develop. And we will search for the signature of life on other worlds, perhaps to learn that we are not alone.
NASA's goal in Astrophysics is to "Discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars." Three broad scientific questions emanate from these goals.
Astrophysics comprises of three focused and two cross-cutting programs. These focused programs provide an intellectual framework for advancing science and conducting strategic planning. They include:
- Physics of the Cosmos
- Cosmic Origins
- Exoplanet Exploration
- Astrophysics Explorer Program
- Astrophysics Research
The Astrophysics current missions include three of the Great Observatories originally planned in the 1980s and launched over the past 25 years. The current suite of operational Great Observatories include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Additionally, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope explores the high-energy end of the spectrum. Innovative Explorer missions, such as the Swift Gamma-ray Explorer and NuSTAR, complement the Astrophysics strategic missions. SOFIA, an airborne observatory for infrared astronomy, is in its operational phase and the Kepler mission is now actively engaged in K2 extended mission operations. All of the missions together account for much of humanity's accumulated knowledge of the heavens. Many of these missions have achieved their prime science goals, but continue to produce spectacular results in their extended operations.
NASA-funded investigators also participate in observations, data analysis and developed instruments for the astrophysics missions of our international partners, including ESA's LISA Pathfinder, XMM-Newton, Herschel, and Planck missions, and JAXA's Suzaku.
The near future will be dominated by several missions. Currently in development, with especially broad scientific utility, is the James Webb Space Telescope. Explorer mission TESS is also in development. TESS will provide an all-sky transit survey, identifying planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, orbiting a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. Explorer Mission of Opportunity NICER has completed development and is awaiting launch in 2017. The NICER mission will study the gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear-physics environments of neutron stars. Also in work are detectors for ESA's Euclid mission.