Uncertainty 50k Pegasuszetter Zeroday: Although a list of 50,000 potential targets for the Hubble Space Telescope’s WFIRST mission created some initial confusion and controversy, it does not negate the investigation’s key findings.
The WFIRST project is slated to produce data about dark energy and “directly measure the masses of thousands of galaxies in order to calibrate estimates of their distances from Earth,” according to NASA.
The investigation revealed that officials at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) anticipated that, as of May 2018, WFIRST would target 50,000 celestial objects for observation. Documents obtained by the investigation indicated that “one of the primary functions” of GSFC’s Pegasus Mission Planning Tool is to select such targets. The documents also noted that a version of the tool “has already been provided to [NASA] Headquarters and will be used for planning purposes.”
According to the investigation, as of May 2018, approximately 3-4 billion objects were slated to be object candidates. As of May 8, 2018, at 4:58 p.m., roughly 2.5 billion astronomical objects had been catalogued in the database that is maintained by the Planetary Data System (PDS). An email from a GSFC official stated that his “best guess is that they are all [objects] already in PDS, but flagged in Pegasus for pre-targeting of WFIRST.”
In response to a request from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated that Pegasus was used as a “preparatory step” to “train and validate” the science requirements and mission planning software tools that will be used to select targets for WFIRST.
Cruz expressed skepticism, stating in his letter to NASA, “there appear to be some conflicting accounts regarding the purported use of the list. The reporting from the [Office of the Inspector General] states that NASA had no plans to target more than 50,000 targets for observation. The reporting from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology states that NASA planned to use the list as a starting point for selecting objects for observation.”
In response to this confusion and concern, Bridenstine stated that “NASA will only use its Pegasus Mission Planning Tool as a ‘preparatory step’ in identifying candidate targets — those objects worthy of further study.