Galileo was the astronomer first to turn his telescope to the heavens, revolutionising our understanding of the cosmos. In the centuries that followed, telescopes grew in size, culminating with the Hubble Telescope’s deployment in 1990. And the latest astronomical epoch is about to occur with the launch of NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope mission (WFIRST).
NASA’s WFIRST will from next year offer unparalleled pictures of the universe.
NASA scientists are confident the powerful WFIRST could find as many as 1,400 new planets outside Earth’s solar system, known as exoplanets.
And the new NASA telescope paves the way for a more focused search for alien life.
And a study, by Ohio State University researchers, has given the most detailed estimates to date of WFIRST’s reach.
WFIRST, the successor to the Kepler Telescope, was designed by NASA and astronomers throughout the country to find new planets and examine dark energy.
Dark energy the mysterious force pervading otherwise empty space and is central to understanding why the universe is accelerating its expansion.
“We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are,” said Matthew Penny, lead author of the study and Ohio State Department of Astronomy astrologer.
“To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything.”
To find new planets, WFIRST will use the cutting-edge gravitational microlensing technique.
Microlensing relies on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light coming from stars that pass behind them from the telescope’s viewpoint.
This microlensing effect, based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, allows a telescope to find planets orbiting stars thousands of light-years away from Earth – farther than other planet-detecting techniques.
But because microlensing works only when the gravity of a planet or star bends the light from another star, the effect from any given planet or star is only visible for a few hours once every few million years.
WFIRST will spend long stretches of time continuously monitoring 100 million stars at the centre of the galaxy.
The planets WFIRST is likely to find will be further from their stars than most planets found to date, Mr Penny said.
The mission will build on the work of Kepler, a deep-space telescope that found more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system, a mission that ended last year.
“Kepler began the search by looking for planets that orbit their stars closer than the Earth is to our Sun,” Penny said.
“WFIRST will complete it by finding planets with larger orbits.”
The WFIRST mission, with a budget of around £2.4billion ($3.2billion), will scan a small piece of the universe, at a resolution higher than any similar mission in the past.
That resolution, Penny said, will allow WFIRST to see more stars and planets than any previous organised search.
“Although it’s a small fraction of the sky, it’s huge compared to what other space telescopes can do,” Penny said.
“It’s WFIRST’s unique combination—both a wide field of view and a high resolution—that make it so powerful for microlensing planet searches.
Previous space telescopes, including Hubble and James Webb, have had to choose one or the other.”
WFIRST, Penny said, should give astronomers, astrophysicists and others who study space significantly more information about more planets outside of our solar system.
“WFIRST will allow us to find types of planets that we haven’t seen before now,” Penny said.
“From WFIRST’s microlensing survey, we will learn how frequently different types of planets are formed, and how unique our solar system is.”