Thanks to an infusion of Congressional funding, NASA has accelerated development of a telescope that could answer some of the most fundamental questions about both the universe and nearby exoplanets. At the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Monday, NASA’s Paul Hertz said the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) project will formally begin this year instead of 2017.
Hertz, who directs NASA’s astrophysics division, made the announcement after Congress increased funding for the new flagship telescope project to $90 million for fiscal year 2016, far above the president’s $16 million budget request. The telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror is designed to measure light from nearly 400 million galaxies and 2,600 exoplanets during its primary, six-year mission.
The WFIRST project emerged as a top priority for NASA after astronomers, in their last decadal survey in 2010, said that such a mission would answer some of their most important questions. The project has evolved over time, but it is now being designed to take advantage of a spy satellite donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Observatory in 2012. The mission could launch within about a decade.
The modified spy telescope, with a mirror the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope, will likely carry two instruments. The wide-field instrument will have a field of view that is about 100 times greater than the Hubble, allowing it to see more galaxies in a shorter amount of time. By making precise measurements of the distance and location of galaxies, astronomers should be able to understand how dark energy has changed over time.
This wide-field view should also lead to the discovery of thousands of new exoplanets. In addition, for nearby systems, a proposed coronagraph instrument will use a disk to block out light from those stars, allowing astronomers a better view of much fainter exoplanets orbiting them. This could provide the first direct images and spectra of exoplanets.
During the formulation phase of the WFIRST project, NASA will assess the technology needed to complete the science goals of the mission, and develop a budget and timeline for construction, testing and launch of the instrument. Hertz warned that other areas of the astrophysics budget may be pinched in the coming years as Congress directs NASA to press ahead with WFIRST and to finalize the James Webb Space Telescope for launch in 2018.