Head in the stars: CNRS visits NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute and Goddard Space Flight Center

On Tuesday January 30, a CNRS delegation comprising Marc Ferrari, astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille and co-director of the CNRS International Research Project TARPIN, Kumiko Kotera, Senior researcher at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and visiting researcher at Pennsylvania State University, Sylvette Tourmente, Director of the CNRS Office in Washington D.C., and Erell Gloaguen, program manager for the CNRS Office in Washington D.C., visited the Space Telescope Science Institute (Baltimore, Maryland) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Maryland).

The CNRS was accompanied by delegations from the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES), the Office national d’études et de recherches aérospatiales (ONERA), the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA) and the French Ambassador to the USA, Laurent Bili, as well as the counselor for science and sechnology for the Embassy of France Mireille Guyader. The aim of these visits was to discuss the future of collaboration between French research organizations and NASA for the US federal agency’s next major missions.

Delegation from CNRS, CNES, ONERA, CEA, Embassy of France with representatives and researchers from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)
© Gary Gilbert/Space Telescope Science Institute

To celebrate Franco-American space cooperation, the CNES office in Washington D.C. organized the annual “Space Galette” reception on Tuesday January 30, bringing together the American and French space communities to share a galette des rois. CNES’s Deputy Director General and Deputy Director for Europe and International flew in from France to take part in the festivities, which are very popular with the space community, and to meet their American partners. The evening was complemented by two scientific events earlier in the day: organized visits to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland, two NASA centers (the first, more community-based, being managed for the agency by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy – AURA).

For this 2024 edition, representatives from CNRS, ONERA and CEA crossed the Atlantic to take part in working meetings alongside CNES. The aim was to show STScI and GSFC the extent of French know-how in space research. The presence of this multi-agency delegation was a significant milestone in the history of bilateral space collaboration, and served to reinforce the cohesion of research organizations within a “Team France”, sharing a common vision of possible French participation in future NASA space missions.

Informative exchanges at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

CNRS first visited the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), a prestigious research institute based in Baltimore, Maryland. Attached to Johns Hopkins University, the Institute manages its missions on behalf of NASA and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, and in the public interest. Its activities include science operations, data distribution, ground systems development, outreach and consulting to NASA on optical and ultraviolet space astrophysics issues. STScI manages and directs the scientific operations of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the future Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. CNRS is STScI’s leading international partner, across all disciplines.

NASA’s flagship astrophysics programs at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)
© Gary Gilbert/Space Telescope Science Institute

During its visit to the institute, the CNRS had the opportunity to listen to instructive scientific presentations on a variety of topics, including the importance of the Decadal Survey[1] for the preparation of space exploration missions; the history of NASA’s flagship astrophysics programs, notably the James Webb Telescope, and the historic importance of international collaborations within these programs; the agency’s plans for its future space telescope dedicated to the exploration and search for signs of life on exoplanets[2]; or the specific features of the American and European funding systems. In particular, CNRS played an active role in discussions concerning the interest of French research organizations in participating in future NASA flagship programs: by highlighting their history of cooperation with the agency and their contribution to previous programs, CNRS, CNES, CEA and ONERA demonstrated their credibility and value as potential partners, bilaterally or via the European Space Agency, for future programs.

This high-level meeting highlighted the CNRS International Research Project TARPIN (Trans-Atlantic Research Program for Imaging New-worlds), which is hosted at STScI and aims to position itself on future NASA missions. Led in France by Marc Ferrari and in the USA by Rémi Soummer, Ph.D. and Director of the Russell B. Makidon Optics Laboratory at STScI, this program aims to design a new type of low-order, segmented, off-axis deformable mirror to simulate the primary mirrors of future large space telescopes. This Franco-American collaboration, which has been active for 10 years, is diligently contributing to the technological developments essential to the preparation of future space missions dedicated to the detection and characterization of exoplanets, at the component, system and algorithm levels.

Discovering the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)

In the second half of the day, the various delegations set off for the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Goddard Center was established on May 1, 1959 as NASA’s first spaceflight complex. Its diverse facilities are essential to NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery: the center is a major laboratory for the development and operation of unmanned scientific spacecraft, conducting scientific research to increase knowledge of the Earth, solar system and universe through observations from space. He oversees the operations of numerous NASA and international missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). In addition to managing communications between Mission Control and the astronauts orbiting the International Space Station, Goddard is involved in a diverse range of scientific and engineering activities. As part of its mission, the GSFC aims to establish solid partnerships with international institutions, with the CNRS as its leading partner in terms of co-publications (all disciplines combined).

© NASA Goddard/Bill Hrybyk

The visit gave the French delegation the opportunity to discover the center’s wide range of activities and some of its facilities. NASA’s Hyperwall display, a video wall for viewing high-definition images and data from satellites dedicated to Earth observation, broadcast cutting-edge research on exoplanets and astrobiology, covering topics such as gravity patterns and gravitational mass changes, as well as water and energy in the atmosphere. He also detailed various scientific exploration missions, both past and future, such as the Dragonfly mission, which plans to visit Titan, Saturn’s largest natural satellite, in 2028.

To round off the visit, the French delegation had the opportunity to observe the clean room where the Nancy Grace Roman telescope is integrated. Scheduled for launch in 2026 or 2027, this space telescope will capture images of an area of the sky up to a hundred times larger than that observed by the Hubble telescope, with equivalent sensitivity.

[1] Recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, with contributions from the scientific community, defining the scientific priorities for the decade and a mission plan to achieve them.

[2] Planets outside the solar system orbiting other stars

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