NASA has announced that it is going ahead with plans for its next major space observatory. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will help scientist unlock some of the deepest secrets of the universe.
The telescope will have the same precision and power as the Hubble Space Telescope but with 100 times the field of view. It will also be equipped with a coronagraph, an instrument that can stop the light of single stars so that it can look directly at the cool and faint planets around them.
“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.
"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.”
The mission is slated to launch in the mid-2020s and will be the agency’s priority once the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018. WFIRST will be capable of scaling up the search for exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of millions of stars. It will complement and expand the work started by Kepler, as it will be able to directly observe the atmosphere of these exoplanets.
WFIRST will also play a significant role in helping us understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Dark matter is a type of matter that only interacts gravitationally (so we cannot see it), and dark energy is the mysterious negative pressure that is responsible for the expansion of the universe.
Dark matter and dark energy together account for 95 percent of the energy content of the universe, and WFIRST will shed some light on them. It will accurately measure how galaxies are distributed in the universe and how quickly they are moving away from each other, helping constrain the properties of the dark components of the cosmos.
"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."