Sciences and Exploration Directorate

Michael W McElwain


Michael W McElwain's Contact Card & Information.
Phone: 301.286.6094
Org Code: 667
Mail Code 667
Greenbelt, MD 20771

Missions & Projects

Brief Bio

2018 - Present: Senior Research Astrophysicist, Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory (Code 667), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

2011 - 2017: Research Astrophysicist, Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory (Code 667), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

2009 - 2011: National Science Foundation Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow, Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University

Spring 2009: Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Board on Physics and Astronomy, The National Academies

2007 - 2009: Henry Norris Russell Postdoctoral Fellow, Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University

Current Projects

James Webb Space Telescope, Observatory Project Scientist

Extrasolar planets

Webb sets out to study the Universe in the infrared, where it will observe first light and reionization, the assembly of galaxies, the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems, and planets and the origins of life. It is the largest space telescope realized to date, with a 6.5 m segmented primary mirror that must be folded to fit within its Ariane 5 launcher fairing. This infrared telescope is passively cooled using a five-layer sunshield that will keep the optical telescope and its four science instruments in the shade throughout the lifetime of the mission in an L2 orbit. The Observatory Project Scientist works with the Observatory Project Manager and Mission Systems Engineering team to ensure that the Observatory meets the required scientific performance, by providing scientific oversight and review of the requirements development, design, construction, integration, test, calibration, and delivery of the Observatory.

Exoplanet Spectroscopy Technologies (ExoSpec) Work Package, Principal Investigator

Extrasolar planets

Our work package links four e fforts at Goddard that enable future missions to more efficiently characterize directly imaged exoplanets. Our emphasis on system-level spectroscopy optimization prepares for future exo-Earth characterization missions, complements the existing technology development plans of the Roman Space Telescope, and addresses recognized Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) technology and science gaps. The technologies involved include high contrast integral field spectroscopy, parabolic deformable mirrors, and photon-counting radiation hard detectors. There is a separate spectral retrieval effort that uses our end-to-end integrated modeling, incorporating the new technologies, to assess the scientific yield of missions with varying levels of technological capabilities. ExoSpec is a technology-focused program that complements the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration (SEEC) work package led in Goddard's Planetary Science Division.

NEID Extreme Precision Radial Velocity Spectrograph, Instrument Scientist

Extrasolar planets

NEID is an extreme precision doppler spectrometer that operates at the WIYN telescope. It was designed to achieve single point radial velocity precisions of ~27 cm/s on bright stars, which enables the discovery of Earth and super-Earth mass habitable-zone planets that are prime candidates for future NASA direct imaging missions, follow-up of TESS- and K2-discovered transiting exoplanets to measure planet mass, density, and orbital dynamics, accurate spectroscopic characterization of exoplanet host stars, and the measurement of dynamical properties for circumbinary and binary stars discovered by TESS. NEID precision radial velocities will also be used to monitor key spectral indicators across its bandpass to revolutionize our understanding of stellar activity and enable cutting-edge science towards 10 cm/s. NEID is supported through the NASA/NSF partnership called NN-EXPLORE.

PISCES: Advancing High Contrast Imaging Technologies with Integral Field Spectroscopy, Principal Investigator

Extrasolar planets

The Prototype Imaging Spectrograph for Coronagraphic Exoplanet Studies (PISCES) is a novel optical high-contrast integral field spectrograph (IFS) for demonstrations of direct exoplanet characterization. PISCES was integrated within the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program High Contrast Imaging Testbed (HCIT) facility at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and carried out a performance demonstration as part of the Roman Space Telescope Coronagraph Instrument's (CGI) technology program. PISCES demonstrated the highest broadband contrast performance to date of 1.09x10^-8 contrast in 18% bandpass using a shaped pupil coronagraph. Integral field spectroscopy is ideal for high contrast imaging, because in addition to spectral characterization of exoplanet atmospheres, the data products will also sample the chromatic effects of the telescope optical assembly. It is critical to correct for the aberrations introduced by the telescope optical assembly using focal plane wavefront sensing techniques. A PISCES-type instrument is baselined for the LUVOIR and HabEx large mission concepts, as well as the Exo-C and Exo-S Probe mission concepts.


2007: University of California, Los Angeles, Ph.D., Astronomy & Astrophysics

2003: University of California, Los Angeles, M.S., Astronomy & Astrophysics

2001: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., Physics

Professional Societies

Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE)

2007 - Present

American Astronomical Soceity (AAS)

2001 - Present

Professional Service

Goddard Astrophysics Line of Business (LOB) Representative

Co-Chair, NASA Goddard Quantum Community of Practice

Participating Sub-Topic Manager, SBIR S2.05 Precision Radial Velocities

NASA Goddard Astrophysics Division Hiring and Promotion Committee

NASA Contracting Officer Representative (COR)

NASA Goddard Astrophysics Division Anti-Harassment Focus Group

NASA ExEP Exo-C Science and Technology Definition Team (STDT)

Co-organizer, Goddard Exoplanet Club

Goddard Sciences & Exploration Directorate Diversity Team

Goddard New and Developing Professionals Committee Member

TAC, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) Subaru Telescope

SOC, Exoplanets and Disks: Their Formation and Diversity II, Kona, Hawaii

SOC, Signposts of Planets Conference, NASA GSFC

Referee for the SPIE Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS), the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ), Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP), and the Frontiers Journals

Review panelist for the NASA eXoplanet Research Program (XRP), NASA Astrophysics Research and Analysis (APRA), NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants (AAG), and NSF Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI)


NASA Agency Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award for JWST

NASA Agency Group Achievement Award for JWST Project Science

NASA Agency Group Achievement Award for JWST Science Working Group

NASA Agency Group Achievement Award for JWST Telescope Commissioning

NASA Agency Group Achievement Award for JWST Line of Sight Team

NASA Agency Group Achievement Award for NEID

NASA Roman Technology Fellowship for PISCES

NASA Agency Group Achievement Award for Roman Space Telescope

NASA Goddard Exceptional Achievement Outreach Team for Disk Detective

NASA Goddard Honor Award for Webb Project Science

NASA Goddard Peer Award

TIME Magazine Top 10 Science Discoveries of 2009 for co-discovery of GJ 758 B

UCLA General Education Cluster Recognition for Excellence in Teaching

UCLA Physics & Astronomy Department's Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award

Selected Publications


2020. "Status of the James Webb Space Telescope mission." Proceedings of the SPIE 11443 114430T [10.1117/12.2562425] [Proceedings]

2016. "PISCES: an integral field spectrograph technology demonstration for the WFIRST coronagraph." Space Telescopes and Instrumentation 2016: Optical, Infrared, and Millimeter Wave [10.1117/12.2231671] [Proceedings]

2015. "LOWER LIMITS ON APERTURE SIZE FOR AN EXOEARTH DETECTING CORONAGRAPHIC MISSION." The Astrophysical Journal 808 (2): 149 [10.1088/0004-637x/808/2/149] [Journal Article/Letter]

2014. "A STATISTICAL ANALYSIS OF SEEDS AND OTHER HIGH-CONTRAST EXOPLANET SURVEYS: MASSIVE PLANETS OR LOW-MASS BROWN DWARFS?." The Astrophysical Journal 794 (2): 159 [10.1088/0004-637x/794/2/159] [Journal Article/Letter]

2013. "DIRECT IMAGING OF A COLD JOVIAN EXOPLANET IN ORBIT AROUND THE SUN-LIKE STAR GJ 504." The Astrophysical Journal 774 (1): 11 [10.1088/0004-637x/774/1/11] [Journal Article/Letter]

2013. "New Techniques for High-contrast Imaging with ADI: The ACORNS-ADI SEEDS Data Reduction Pipeline." The Astrophysical Journal 764 183 [10.1088/004-637X/764/2/183] [Journal Article/Letter]

2013. "Direct Imaging Discovery of a 'Super-Jupiter' around the Late B-type Star Kappa Andromedae." The Astrophysical Journal Letters 763 L32 [10.1088/2041-8205/763/2/L32] [Journal Article/Letter]

2012. "Scientific design of a high contrast integral field spectrograph for the Subaru Telescope." SPIE 8446 [Full Text] [Journal Article/Letter]

2012. "NIMBUS: the Near-infrared Multi-Band Ultraprecise Spectroimager for SOFIA." SPIE 8446 [10.1117/12.927094] [Journal Article/Letter]

2011. "A Dual-Mask Coronagraph for Observing Faint Companions to Binary Stars." Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 123 333 [10.1086/659038] [Journal Article/Letter]

2009. "DISCOVERY OF THE COLDEST IMAGED COMPANION OF A SUN-LIKE STAR." The Astrophysical Journal 707 (2): L123-L127 [10.1088/0004-637x/707/2/l123] [Journal Article/Letter]

2007. "First High Contrast Science with an Integral Field Spectrograph: The Substellar Companion to GQ Lupi." The Astrophysical Journal 656 505-514 [Full Text] [10.1086/510063] [Journal Article/Letter]

2006. "Resolved Spectroscopy of M Dwarf/L Dwarf Binaries. II. 2MASS J17072343-0558249AB." The Astronomical Journal 132 2074-2081 [Full Text] [10.1086/508199] [Journal Article/Letter]