NASA's next space telescope will have a view 100 times larger than that of the Hubble Space Telescope which scientists hope will unlock hundreds more mysteries about our universe.
Dubbed the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST, the telescope will help scientists unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. WFIRST will also be able to discover new worlds outside our solar system and advance the search for worlds that could be suitable for life.
WFIRST is the space agency's next major astrophysics observatory following the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. The observatory will survey large regions of the sky in near-infrared light to answer fundamental questions about the structure and evolution of the universe, and expand our knowledge of planets beyond our solar system – known as exoplanets.
WFIRST will carry a Wide Field Instrument for surveys, and a Coronagraph Instrument designed to block the glare of individual stars and reveal the faint light of planets orbiting around them. By blocking the light of the host star, the Coronagraph Instrument will enable detailed measurements of the chemical makeup of planetary atmospheres. Comparing these data across many worlds will allow scientists to better understand the origin and physics of these atmospheres, and search for chemical signs of environments suitable for life.
"WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division. “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.
Employing multiple techniques, astronomers will use WFIRST to track how dark energy and dark matter have affected the evolution of our universe. Dark energy is a mysterious, negative pressure that has been speeding up the expansion of the universe. Dark matter is invisible material that makes up most of the matter in our universe.
The telescope’s sensitivity and wide view will also enable a large-scale search for exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of millions of stars in the crowded central region of our galaxy
By measuring the distances of thousands of supernovae, astronomers can map in detail how cosmic expansion has increased with time. WFIRST also can 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.
"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."
WFIRST is slated to launch in the mid-2020s. The observatory will begin operations after travelling to a gravitational balance point known as Earth-Sun L2, which is located about one million miles from Earth in a direction directly opposite the Sun.
Image credit: NASA