In the mid-2020s, NASA’s next-generation Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will take to space. With unprecedented resolution and advanced instruments, it will build on the foundation established by the venerableHubble Space Telescope – which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year! In anticipation of all it will accomplish, NASA decided that the WFIRST needs a proper name, one that honors its connection to Hubble.
This week, NASA announced that henceforth, the WFIRST mission will be known as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (or Roman Space Telescope for short) in honor of Dr. Nancy Grace Roman (who passed away in 2018). In addition to being NASA’s first Chief Astronomer, she was also a tireless educator and advocate for women in STEMs whose work paved the way for space telescopes – leading to her nickname “the mother of Hubble.”
In 2025, NASA’s next-generation telescope, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will take to space and join in the search for extrasolar planets. Between its 2.4-meter (8 ft) telescope, 18 detectors, 300-megapixel camera, and the extraordinary survey speed it will offer, the WFIRST will be able to scan areas of the sky a hundred times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Beyond its high-sensitivity and advanced suite of instruments, WFIRST will also rely on a technique known as Gravitational Microlensing to search for and characterize exoplanets. This is essentially a small-scale version of the gravitational lensing technique, where the gravitational force of a massive object between the observer and the target is used to focus and magnify the light coming from a distant source.
Soon, astronomers and astrophysicists will have more observing power than they know what to do with. Not only will the James Webb Space Telescope one day, sometime in the next couple years, we hope, if all goes well, and if the coronavirus doesn’t delay it again, launch and begin operations. But another powerful NASA space telescope called WFIRST has passed an important stage, and is one step closer to reality.
This week we are airing Fraser’s interview with Dr. Cole Miller, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Miller led one of two separate teams that analyzed Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) data – specifically that for pulsar called J0030+0451 (J0030) in the constellation Pisces – and were able to map the surface features of a pulsar for the first time.
When it takes to space in 2025, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will be the most powerful observatory ever deployed, succeeding the venerable Hubbleand Spitzerspace telescopes. Relying on a unique combination of high resolution with a wide field of view, WFIRST will be able to capture the equivalent of 100 Hubble-quality images with a single shot and survey the night sky with 1,000 times the speed.
In preparation for this momentous event, astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have been running simulations to demonstrate what the WFIRST will be able to see so they can plan their observations. To give viewers a preview of what this would look like, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has shared a video that simulates the WFIRST conducting a survey of the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy (M31).
In the next decade, NASA will be sending some truly impressive facilities to space. These include the next-generation space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST). Building on the foundation established by Hubble, WFIRST will use its advanced suite of instruments to investigate some of the deepest mysteries of the Universe.
One of these instruments is the coronagraph that will allow the telescope to get a clear look at extra-solar planets. This instrument recently completed a preliminary design review conducted by NASA, a major milestone in its development. This means that the instrument has met all design, schedule and budget requirements, and can now proceed to the next phase in development.
To assist with future efforts to locate and study exoplanets, engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – in conjunction with the Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) – are working to create Starshade. Once deployed, this revolutionary spacecraft will help next-generation telescopes by blocking out the obscuring light coming from distant stars so exoplanets can be imaged directly.
While this may sound pretty straightforward, the Starshade will also need to engage in some serious formation flying in order to do its job effectively. That was the conclusion of the reached by the Starshade Technology Development team (aka. S5) Milestone 4 report – which is available through the ExEP website. As the report stated, Starshade will need to be perfectly aligned with space telescopes, even at extreme distances.