Just when you thought Hubble and Kepler were everything, something almost unfathomably awesome has emerged from the brains of NASA.
Telescopes are usually either behemoths that can only capture an infinitesimal (in cosmic terms at least) part of the sky or tiny dynamos that can image immense panoramas of planets and stars. NASA’s enormous Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, is a hybrid that will merge the two with its ability to capture the largest pictures of the universe human eyes have ever seen.
We are dawning on an era of monster space telescopes unlike anything we already thought was huge enough from the ‘90s through the last decade. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Hubble have observed seas of stars and unearthed thousands of exoplanets, but WFIRST will venture into new frontiers of space exploration with its superpowered equipment. It will have all the clarity and depth of Hubble’s hypersensitive cameras, with much wider eyeballs—as in, its 300-megapixel Wide Field Instrument will be able to beam back a picture of an area a hundred times larger. That’s the detail of a hundred Hubble images. Just one WFIRST shot will show us over a million galaxies.
Using the power of its 2.4-meter mirror (which is the same size as Hubble’s but much more potent) with the Wide Field Instrument, WFIRST will also be doing a deep dive into the origins of the universe, our knowledge of which is nebulous at best. It will shed light on dark energy by mapping the structure and distribution of matter, and with surveys of surpernovae, galaxy clusters, and a 3D map of galaxy distribution, give us a portal further back in time than ever by measuring how the universe expanded over billions of years. Cosmic acceleration—the gradual speeding up of this expansion—could possibly be explained by dark energy.
“WFIRST will allow us to potentially make groundbreaking discoveries in what dark energy is,” said Yun Wang, a senior research scientist at Caltech. “So this will tell us if dark energy is an unknown form of energy or if it’s a modification of general relativity.”
Exoplanets will also be on the super-scope’s radar. WFIRST is expected to monitor 100 million stars for hundreds of days to find at least 2,500 previously unknown planets, compared to the 1,284 that Kepler has discovered. Galaxies are massive enough to bend passing light and curve spacetime, which magnifies even more galaxies behind them. This phenomenon, otherwise known as gravitational microlensing, can also illuminate alien planets. When a star passes in front of our line of sight and aligns itself with a background star, that star brightens, distorts and magnifies the star behind it. That brighter star in the distance can make dim orbiting planets more observable.
WFIRST’s coronagraph, which will have a thousand times the capability of any of its predecessors, will image these planets in the darkness by blocking out starlight to give them higher visibility and help scientists understand their atmospheres and other properties on a more macro level.
Oh, and even you can be a WFIRST stargazer. All the telescope’s data will be publicly available soon after it’s transmitted to Earth.
“Citizen science allows interested people in the general public to solve scientific problems,” said NASA Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Jason Kalirai, “so one of the things I’m really excited about is building this bridge in which the general public can get involved in doing actual science."
Gaze on, because maybe you will discover the next planet that will break the internet.