How NASA's new telescope could unlock some mysteries of the universe

The National Aeronautic and Space Agency's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope project was announced to begin its development Wednesday. The new device is set to provide even more data about the universe than previous telescopes managed.

NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab
NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), illustrated here, will carry a Wide Field Instrument to capture Hubble-quality images covering large swaths of sky, enabling cosmic evolution studies. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres.

One of the most highly anticipated astronomical missions of the next decade is now officially in the works at the NASA.

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, has been under study for years and it was formally decided Wednesday that the project would be moving forward.

“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble [Space Telescope] has,” said NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld in an agency release. “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.”

While the Hubble telescope, which launched in 1990, has been of some assistance to the study of dark matter and energy, WFIRST is purposed to discover more about them than ever before.

Dark matter, a substance hypothesized to make up five-sixths of the universe’s matter content, has never been directly observed. Instead, it makes itself known through its gravitational effects, tugging on galaxies and bending light that travels near it. Dark energy is a similarly unknown property that scientists have proposed to explain the apparent acceleration of the universe’s expansion.

The study of dark energy and dark matter, as well as the advancement of the WFIRST program, were listed in the US National Research Council’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey as some of the top priorities for scientists to address in the coming decade, because of the telescope’s role in understanding the composition of the universe and its potential to view previously unseen planets orbiting distant stars.

“WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community,” NASA's Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz said. “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.”

WFIRST is poised to become one of the successors to the Hubble, following the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope set for late 2018. That device will offer higher-resolution images of objects farther away than previous telescopes have been able to provide.

The WFIRST device’s launch date has not been officially set, but is estimated to be in the mid-2020s. After it launches the telescope will travel around one million miles from Earth in the opposite direction of the sun, where it will sit in a gravitational balance point, according to NASA.

While tens of millions of dollars have been appropriated so far by Congress for WFIRST’s formulation through the past several years’ federal budgets, it is estimated the final project could cost more than $2 billion by the time it reaches space. The James Webb device’s initial cost was also estimated at around $2 billion, but by 2018 could have run up costs of more than $8 billion.

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