Rise Of The Super Telescopes: The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will capture Hubble-quality images covering swaths of sky 100 times larger than Hubble does, enabling cosmic evolution studies. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres. Credits: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.

In this series we’ll look at the world’s upcoming Super Telescopes:

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

It’s easy to forget the impact that the Hubble Space Telescope has had on our state of knowledge about the Universe. In fact, that might be the best measurement of its success: We take the Hubble, and all we’ve learned from it, for granted now. But other space telescopes are being developed, including the WFIRST, which will be much more powerful than the Hubble. How far will these telescopes extend our understanding of the Universe?

“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has.” – John Grunsfeld, NASA Science Mission Directorate

The WFIRST might be the true successor to the Hubble, even though the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is often touted as such. But it may be incorrect to even call WFIRST a telescope; it’s more accurate to call it an astrophysics observatory. That’s because one of its primary science objectives is to study Dark Energy, that rather mysterious force that drives the expansion of the Universe, and Dark Matter, the difficult-to-detect matter that slows that expansion.

WFIRST will have a 2.4 meter mirror, the same size as the Hubble. But, it will have a camera that will expand the power of that mirror. The Wide Field Instrument is a 288-megapixel multi-band near-infrared camera. Once it’s in operation, it will capture images that are every bit as sharp as those from Hubble. But there is one huge difference: The Wide Field Instrument will capture images that cover over 100 times the sky that Hubble does.

Alongside the Wide Field Instrument, WFIRST will have the Coronagraphic Instrument. The Coronagraphic Instrument will advance the study of exoplanets. It’ll use a system of filters and masks to block out the light from other stars, and hone in on planets orbiting those stars. This will allow very detailed study of the atmospheres of exoplanets, one of the main ways of determining habitability.

WFIRST is slated to be launched in 2025, although it’s too soon to have an exact date. But when it launches, the plan is for WFIRST to travel to the Sun-Earth LaGrange Point 2 (L2.) L2 is a gravitationally balanced point in space where WFIRST can do its work without interruption. The mission is set to last about 6 years.

Probing Dark Energy

“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.”

In a nutshell, there are two proposals for what Dark Energy can be. The first is the cosmological constant, where Dark Energy is uniform throughout the cosmos. The second is what’s known as scalar fields, where the density of Dark Energy can vary in time and space.

We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had started accelerating about 5 billion years ago. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild
We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had accelerated. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

Since the 1990s, observations have shown us that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. That acceleration started about 5 billion years ago. We think that Dark Energy is responsible for that accelerated expansion. By providing such large, detailed images of the cosmos, WFIRST will let astronomers map expansion over time and over large areas. WFIRST will also precisely measure the shapes, positions and distances of millions of galaxies to track the distribution and growth of cosmic structures, including galaxy clusters and the Dark Matter accompanying them. The hope is that this will give us a next level of understanding when it comes to Dark Energy.

If that all sounds too complicated, look at it this way: We know the Universe is expanding, and we know that the expansion is accelerating. We want to know why it’s expanding, and how. We’ve given the name ‘Dark Energy’ to the force that’s driving that expansion, and now we want to know more about it.

Probing Exoplanets

Dark Energy and the expansion of the Universe is a huge mystery, and a question that drives cosmologists. (They really want to know how the Universe will end!) But for many of the rest of us, another question is even more compelling: Are we alone in the Universe?

There’ll be no quick answer to that one, but any answer we find begins with studying exoplanets, and that’s something that WFIRST will also excel at.

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We’re going to keep finding more and more solar systems like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “The Wide-Field Instrument will give the telescope the ability to capture a single image with the depth and quality of Hubble, but covering 100 times the area. The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.”

“The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.” – Paul Hertz, NASA Astrophysics Division

The difficulty in studying exoplanets is that they are all orbiting stars. Stars are so bright they make it impossible to see their planets in any detail. It’s like staring into a lighthouse miles away and trying to study an insect near the lighthouse.

The Coronagraphic Instrument on board WFIRST will excel at blocking out the light of distant stars. It does that with a system of mirrors and masks. This is what makes studying exoplanets possible. Only when the light from the star is dealt with, can the properties of exoplanets be examined.

This will allow detailed measurements of the chemical composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. By doing this over thousands of planets, we can begin to understand the formation of planets around different types of stars. There are some limitations to the Coronagraphic Instrument, though.

The Coronagraphic Instrument was kind of a late addition to WFIRST. Some of the other instrumentation on WFIRST isn’t optimized to work with it, so there are some restrictions to its operation. It will only be able to study gas giants, and so-called Super-Earths. These larger planets don’t require as much finesse to study, simply because of their size. Earth-like worlds will likely be beyond the power of the Coronagraphic Instrument.

These limitations are no big deal in the long run. The Coronagraph is actually more of a technology demonstration, and it doesn’t represent the end-game for exoplanet study. Whatever is learned from this instrument will help us in the future. There will be an eventual successor to WFIRST some day, perhaps decades from now, and by that time Coronagraph technology will have advanced a great deal. At that future time, direct snapshots of Earth-like exoplanets may well be possible.

But maybe we won’t have to wait that long.

Starshade To The Rescue?

There is a plan to boost the effectiveness of the Coronagraph on WFIRST that would allow it to image Earth-like planets. It’s called the EXO-S Starshade.

The EXO-S Starshade is a 34m diameter deployable shading system that will block starlight from impairing the function of WFIRST. It would actually be a separate craft, launched separately and sent on its way to rendezvous with WFIRST at L2. It would not be tethered, but would orient itself with WFIRST through a system of cameras and guide lights. In fact, part of the power of the Starshade is that it would be about 40,000 to 50,000 km away from WFIRST.

Dark Energy and Exoplanets are priorities for WFIRST, but there are always other discoveries awaiting better telescopes. It’s not possible to predict everything that we’ll learn from WFIRST. With images as detailed as Hubble’s, but 100 times larger, we’re in for some surprises.

“This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.” – Neil Gehrels, WFIRST Project Scientist

“In addition to its exciting capabilities for dark energy and exoplanets, WFIRST will provide a treasure trove of exquisite data for all astronomers,” said Neil Gehrels, WFIRST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.”

With all of the Super Telescopes coming on line in the next few years, we can expect some amazing discoveries. In 10 to 20 years time, our knowledge will have advanced considerably. What will we learn about Dark Matter and Dark Energy? What will we know about exoplanet populations?

Right now it seems like we’re just groping towards a better understanding of these things, but with WFIRST and the other Super Telescopes, we’re poised for more purposeful study.

Kamikaze Comet Loses its Head

Like coins, most comet have both heads and tails. Occasionally, during a close passage of the Sun, a comet’s head will be greatly diminished yet still retain a classic cometary outline. Rarely are we left with nothing but a tail. How eerie it looks. Like a feather plucked from some cosmic deity floating down from the sky. Welcome to C/2015 D1 SOHO, the comet that almost didn’t make it. 

It was discovered on Feb. 18 by Thai amateur astronomer and writer Worachate Boonplod from the comfort of his office while examining photographs taken with the coronagraph on the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). A coronagraph blocks the fantastically bright Sun with an opaque disk, allowing researchers to study the solar corona as well as the space near the Sun. Boonplod regularly examines real-time SOHO images for comets and has a knack for spotting them; in 2014 alone he discovered or co-discovered 35 comets without so much as putting on a coat.


Learn why there are so many sungrazing comets

Most of them belong to a group called Kreutz sungrazers, the remains of a much larger comet that broke to pieces in the distant past. The vast majority of the sungrazers fritter away to nothing as they’re pounded by the Sun’s gravity and vaporize in its heat. D1 SOHO turned out to be something different – a non-group comet belonging to neither the Kreutz family nor any other known family.

After a perilously close journey only 2.6 million miles from the Sun’s 10,000° surface, D1 SOHO somehow emerged with two thumbs up en route to the evening sky. After an orbit was determined, we published a sky map here at Universe Today encouraging observers to see if and when the comet might first become visible. Although it was last seen at around magnitude +4.5 on Feb. 21 by SOHO, hopes were high the comet might remain bright enough to see with amateur telescopes.

On Wednesday evening Feb. 25, Justin Cowart, a geologist and amateur astronomer from Alto Pass, Illinois figured he’d have a crack at it. Cowart didn’t have much hope after hearing the news that the comet may very well have crumbled apart after the manner of that most famous of disintegrators, Comet ISON . ISON fragmented even before perihelion in late 2013, leaving behind an expanding cloud of exceedingly faint dust.

Animation showing the possible D1 SOHO comet and its position marked on an atlas based on its orbit. Credit: Justin Cowart / Jose Chambo
Animation showing the D1 SOHO comet and its position marked on an atlas based on its orbit. Credit: Justin Cowart / José Chambo

Cowart set up a camera and tracking mount anyway and waited for clearing in the west after sunset. Comet D1 SOHO was located some 10° above the horizon near the star Theta Piscium in a bright sky. Justin aimed and shot:

“I was able to see stars down to about 6th magnitude in the raw frames, but no comet,” wrote Cowart.  “I decided to stack my frames and see if I could do some heavy processing to bring out a faint fuzzy. To my surprise, when DeepSkyStacker spit out the final image I could see a faint cloud near Theta Picsium, right about where the comet expected to be!”

Cowart sent the picture off to astronomer Karl Battams, who maintains the Sungrazer Project website, for his opinion. Battams was optimistic but felt additional confirmation was necessary. Meanwhile, comet observer José Chambo got involved in the discussion and plotted D1’s position on a star atlas (in the blinking photo above) based on a recent orbit calculation. Bingo! The fuzzy streak in Justin’s photo matched the predicted position, making it the first ground-based observation of the new visitor.

Comet D1 SOHO's orbit is steeply inclined to the ecliptic. It's now headed into the northern sky, sliding up the eastern side of Pegasus into Andromeda. Credit: JPL
Comet D1 SOHO’s orbit is steeply inclined to the ecliptic. It’s now headed into the northern sky, sliding up the eastern side of Pegasus into Andromeda as it recedes from both Earth and Sun. Credit: JPL Horizons

Comet D1 SOHO’s orbit is steeply inclined (70°) to the Earth’s orbit. After rounding the Sun, it turned sharply north and now rises higher in the western sky with each passing night for northern hemisphere skywatchers. Pity that the Moon has been a harsh mistress, washing out the sky just as the comet is beginning to gain altitude. These less-than-ideal circumstances haven’t prevented other astrophotographers from capturing the rare sight of a tailless comet. On Feb. 2, Jost Jahn of Amrum, Germany took an even clearer image, confirming Cowart’s results.

This photo, which confirms Cowart's observation, was taken on Feb. 27 from Germany. Jost Jahn stacked 59 15-second exposures (ISO 1600, f/2.4) taken with an 85mm telescope. Credit: Jost Jahn
This photo, which confirmed Justin Cowart’s observation, was taken on Feb. 27 from Germany. Jost Jahn stacked 59 15-second exposures (ISO 1600, f/2.4) taken with an 85mm telescope to capture D1’s faint tail. Credit: Jost Jahn

To date, there have been no visual observations of D1 SOHO made with binoculars or telescopes, so it’s difficult to say exactly how bright it is. Perhaps magnitude +10? Low altitude, twilight and moonlight as well as the comet’s diffuse appearance have conspired to make it a lofty challenge. That will change soon.

Comet D1 SOHO's dim remnant on Feb. 28, 2015. Credit: Francois Kugel
Comet D1 SOHO’s dim remnant on Feb. 28, 2015 looks like it was applied with spray paint. Credit: Francois Kugel / fkometes.pagesperso-orange.fr/index.html

Once the Moon begins its departure from the evening sky on March 6-7, a window of darkness will open. Fortuitously, D1 SOHO will be even higher up and set well after twilight ends. I’m as eager as many of you are to train my scope in its direction and bid both hello and farewell to a comet we’ll never see again.

Map to help you find Comet C/2015 D1 SOHO March 2-8 around 7 p.m. (CST) and 8 p.m. CDT on March 8. Stars are shown to magnitude 6.5. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Map to help you find Comet C/2015 D1 SOHO March 2-7 around 7 p.m. (CST) and 8 p.m. CDT on March 8. Stars are shown to magnitude 8. See also below. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Here are fresh maps based on the most recent orbit published by the Minor Planet Center. Assuming you wait until after Full Moon, start looking for the comet in big binoculars or a moderate to large telescope right at the end of evening twilight when it’s highest in a dark sky. The comet sets two hours after the end of twilight on March 7th from the central U.S.

Broader view with north up and west to the right showing nightly comet positions at 7 p.m. CST through March 7 and then 8 p.m. CDT thereafter. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott's Stellarium
Broader view with north up and west to the right showing nightly comet positions at 7 p.m. CST through March 7 and then 8 p.m. CDT thereafter. Stars to magnitude +9. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s Stellarium

Making Cubesats do Astronomy

One doesn’t take two cubesats and rub them together to make static electricity. Rather, you send them on a brief space voyage to low-earth orbit (LEO) and space them apart some distance and voilà, you have a telescope. That is the plan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center engineers and also what has been imagined by several others.

Cubesats are one of the big crazes in the new space industry. But nearly all that have flown to-date are simple rudderless cubes taking photos when they are oriented correctly. The GSFC engineers are planning to give two cubes substantial control of their positions relative to each other and to the Universe surrounding them. With one holding a telescope and the other a disk to blot out the bright sun, their cubesat telescope will do what not even the Hubble Space Telescope is capable of and for far less money.

Semper (left), Calhoun, and Shah are advancing the technologies needed to create a virtual telescope that they plan to demonstrate on two CubeSats. (Image/Caption Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk)
Semper (left), Calhoun, and Shah are advancing the technologies needed to create a virtual telescope that they plan to demonstrate on two CubeSats. (Image/Caption Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk)

The 1U, the 3U, the 9U – these are all cubesats of different sizes. They all have in common the unit size of 1. A 1U cubesat is 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters cubed. A cube of this size will hold one liter of water (about one quart) which is one kilogram by weight. Or replace that water with hydrazine and you have very close to 1 kilogram of mono-propellent rocket fuel which can take a cubestat places.

GSFC aerospace engineers, led by Neerav Shah, don’t want to go far, they just want to look at things far away using two cubesats. Their design will use one as a telescope – some optics and a good detector –and the other cubesat will stand off about 20 meters, as they plan, and function as a coronagraph. The coronagraph cubesat will function as a sun mask, an occulting disk to block out the bright rays from the surface of the Sun so that the cubesat telescope can look with high resolution at the corona and the edge of the Sun. To these engineers, the challenge is keeping the two cubesats accurately aligned and pointing at their target.

Only dedicated Sun observing space telescopes such as SDO, STEREO and SOHO are capable of blocking out the Sun, but their coronagraphs are limited. Separating the coronagraph farther from the optics markedly improves how closely one can look at the edge of a bright object. With the corongraph mask closer to the optics, more bright light will still reach the optics and detectors and flood out what you really want to see. The technology Shah and his colleagues develop can be a pathfinder for future space telescopes that will search for distant planets around other stars – also using a coronagraph to reveal the otherwise hidden planets.

The engineers have received a $8.6-million investment from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and are working in collaboration with the Maryland-based Emergent Space Technologies.

An example of a 3U cubesat - 3 1U cubes stacked. This cubesat size  could function as the telescope of a two cubesat telescope system. It could be a simple 10 cm diameter optic system or use fancier folding optics to improve its resolving power. (Credit: LLNL)
An example of a 3U cubesat – 3 1U cubes stacked. This cubesat size could function as the telescope of a two cubesat telescope system. It could be a simple 10 cm diameter optic system or use fancier folding optics to improve its resolving power. (Credit: LLNL)

The challenge of GSFC engineers is giving two small cubesats guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) as good as any standard spacecraft that has flown. They plan on using off-the-shelf technology and there are many small and even large companies developing and selling cubesat parts.

This is a sorting out period for the cubesat sector, if you will, of the new space industry. Sorting through the off-the-shelf components, the GSFC engineers led by Shah will pick the best in class. The parts they need are things like tiny sun sensors and star sensors, laser beams and tiny detectors of those beams, accelerometers, tiny gyroscopes or momentum wheels and also small propulsion systems. The cubesat industry is pretty close to having all these ready as standard issue. The question then is what do you do with tiny satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Telescopes for earth-observing are already making headway and scopes for astronomy are next. There are also plans to venture out to interplanetary space with tiny and capable cubesat space probes.

Whether one can sustain a profit for a company built on cubesats remains a big question. Right now those building cubesats to customer specs are making a profit and those making the tiny picks and shovels for cubesats are making profits. The little industry may be overbuilt which in economic parlance might be only natural. Many small startups will fail. However, for researchers at universities and research organizations like NASA, cubesats have staying power because they reduce cost by their low mass and size, and the low cost of the components to make them function. The GSFC effort will determine how quickly cubesats begin to do real work in the field of astronomy. Controlling attitude and adding propulsion is the next big thing in cubesat development.

References:

NASA Press Release

Could An Amateur Astronomer Snap a Picture of an Exoplanet?

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Using their backyard telescope, today? No; however, this image of three exoplanets required just 1.5 meters (diameter; 60 inches) of a telescope mirror, not vastly larger than the biggest backyard ‘scope.

These particular exoplanets orbit the star HR 8799, and have been imaged directly before, by one of the 10-meter (33-foot) Keck telescopes and the 8.0-meter (26-foot) Gemini North Observatory, both on Mauna Kea in Hawaii; they are among the first to be so imaged, as reported by Universe Today in November 2008 First Image of Another Multi-Planet Solar System.

So how did Gene Serabyn and colleagues manage the trick of taking the image above, using just a 1.5-meter-diameter (4.9-foot) portion of the famous Palomar 200-inch (5.1 meter) Hale telescope’s mirror?

Infrared observations of a multi-exoplanet star system HR 8799 (Keck Observatory)


They did it by working in the near infrared, and by combining two techniques – adaptive optics and a coronagraph – to minimize the glare from the star and reveal the dim glow of the much fainter planets.

“Our technique could be used on larger ground-based telescopes to image planets that are much closer to their stars, or it could be used on small space telescopes to find possible Earth-like worlds near bright stars,” said Gene Serabyn, who is an astrophysicist at JPL and visiting associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants similar to Jupiter, but more massive. They orbit their host star at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and the Sun, respectively (Jupiter resides at about five times the Earth-Sun distance). It’s possible that rocky worlds like Earth circle closer to the planets’ homestar, but with current technology, they would be impossible to see under the star’s glare.

The star HR 8799 is a bit more massive than our sun, and much younger, at about 60 million years, compared to our sun’s approximately 4.6 billion years. It is 120 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. This star’s planetary system is still active, with bodies crashing together and kicking up dust, as recently detected by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Like a fresh-baked pie out of the oven, the planets are still warm from their formation and emit enough infrared radiation for telescopes to detect.

To take a picture of HR 8799’s planets, Serabyn and his colleagues first used a method called adaptive optics to reduce the amount of atmospheric blurring, or to take away the “twinkle” of the star. For these observations, technique was optimized by using only a small fraction of the telescope was used. Once the twinkle was removed, the light from the star itself was blocked using the team’s coronograph, an instrument that selectively masks out the star. A novel “vortex coronagraph,” invented by team member Dimitri Mawet of JPL, was used for this step. The final result was an image showing the light of three planets.

While adaptive optics is in use on only a few amateurs’ telescopes (and a relatively simple kind at that), the technology will likely become widely available to amateurs in the next few years. However, vortex coronagraphs may take a bit longer.

“The trick is to suppress the starlight without suppressing the planet light,” said Serabyn.

The technique can be used to image the space lying just a few arcseconds from a star. This is as close to the star as that achieved by Gemini and Keck – telescopes that are about five and seven times larger, respectively.

Keeping telescopes small is critical for space missions. “This is the kind of technology that could let us image other Earths,” said Wesley Traub, the chief scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL. “We are on our way toward getting a picture of another pale blue dot in space.”

Sources: JPL, Nature, Astrophysics Journal (preprint is arXiv:0912.2287)