NASA astrophysics: New discoveries generate new questions

Mark Clampin of NASA discusses the present and future of astrophysics at NASA at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation
29 May 2024
Karen Thomas
Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters
Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, delivers a talk about the Habitable Worlds Observatory at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Apr. 11, 2024. Courtesy of NASA.

“I’ve been studying astronomy all my life,” says NASA Director of Astrophysics Mark Clampin. “My first inspirations were watching Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, and NASA bringing home the Apollo-13 astronauts. I’ve always been interested in astrophysics, so for me leading the nation’s Astrophysics program is the pinnacle. My personal research interests focus on understanding how planetary systems outside our solar system form and evolve.” 

What are some of your responsibilities as Astrophysics Division Director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA?
The objectives of NASA’s Astrophysics Division are to answer these questions: How does the Universe work? How did we get here? Are we alone? In my role as director, I am responsible for setting NASA’s strategic direction to address these questions. It requires working with the science and commercial communities to develop and implement new scientific missions, running the research and analysis program, and leading the development of new technologies to facilitate future ground-breaking missions.

What do you see as the most important aspect of your work?
The most important aspect of my work at this time is ensuring the success of the Roman Space Telescope, NASA’s first survey flagship mission in astrophysics. The other key aspect of my work is ensuring that the Astrophysics program is balanced across mission classes and scientific objectives, while also providing a foundation for the next generation of space astrophysics researchers.

What is the most exciting or surprising aspect of your work? Or what might be the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge has to be the sheer variety of the work, which in a typical day can range from developing strategies to implementing the Decadal Survey recommendations; working with our program teams and contractors to solve problems as our missions are built; resolving budget conflicts; and understanding implications of a new astrophysics result.

As you noted above, the goals of the Astrophysics Division are to understand how the Universe works, understand how we got here and to address the question of whether we are alone. How far have we come in our understanding of the Universe?
We’ve made incredible strides in understanding the Universe and our place in it. NASA’s astrophysics missions have looked back over 13.5 billion years to some of the earliest galaxies, helping us understand how the Universe evolved over time and how we got here today. We’ve gone from speculating about planets outside our solar system to confirming more than 5,500 of them, learning about how they form, and even studying some of their atmospheres and weather patterns. But new discoveries generate new questions. Upcoming NASA missions will delve into secrets of the Universe that remain mysterious to us, such as the nature of dark energy and dark matter as well as our continuing search for life, making this a profoundly exciting time in astrophysics.

How will the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO) help in our understanding of the Universe? What might we learn from HWO?
The HWO will be the first space telescope designed to find life as we know it outside our solar system. None of our previous missions were specifically designed to search for signs of life on Earth-like planets, around stars like our Sun. HWO will be the first purpose-built observatory to directly image and search for biosignatures on these types of planets.

HWO will do all this while also undertaking broader, transformational astrophysics investigations about our Universe, including the formation of the most massive stars in the early Universe, supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies, the growth of galaxies over time, and detailed, high-quality studies of objects in our own solar system.

NASA is laying the groundwork for HWO now by first maturing and developing the technologies we’ll need, including a coronagraph thousands of times more capable than any prior space coronagraph, and a stable optical system moving no more than the width of an atom during observations. With these next-generation capabilities, HWO will unlock a series of discoveries to answer some of the greatest questions of our time: Are we alone? And how common is life beyond Earth?

What do you see as the future of the Astrophysics Division at NASA? What would you like to see?
The future of astrophysics at NASA is being determined by the discoveries made by the missions we are operating today. In the immediate future, I am excited by the Roman Space Telescope and the insights it will give us into the nature of dark energy and dark matter. The National Academies’ Decadal Survey has proposed that the next astrophysics flagship will be a mission to search for life outside our solar system. The mission is called the Habitable Worlds Observatory and, having initiated this program, I look forward to seeing this mission concept develop.

What would you like attendees to learn from your talk at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation?
I have attended  SPIE’s Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation Conference throughout my career. I see my plenary talk at this meeting as an opportunity to speak to my colleagues who work on the development of mission instruments and technology about the NASA Astrophysics long-term vision for future missions and programs. I would like to think that if you are starting a career in astronomical instrumentation, this talk will provide guidance on the technology, instruments, and missions you should be getting involved in developing.

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