The universe that we can observe either with the naked eye or with tech is a very small fraction of the whole. The challenge, then, is to see the invisible.
NASA is rising to that challenge with WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope), a next-generation infrared space observatory, which will hopefully answer crucial questions about the effects of dark energy on the distribution of galaxies in the universe when it launches in the mid-2020s.
Last February, NASA selected two industry partners – Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin Advance Technology Center – to work on WFIRST's Wide-Field Optical-Mechanical Assembly (WOMA). Now, Lockheed Martin has provided an update on their work.
The team has previously worked on another NASA project, the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which was installed on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that will begin observing the universe in 2018.
"Lockheed Martin scientists achieved groundbreaking results with NIRCam's precision and sensitivity," said Jeff Vanden Beukel, WOMA program manager at Lockheed Martin, in a statement. "There's no time to lose as we support a fast-paced schedule, and our experience with NIRCam's precision optics positions our WOMA design to be capable, producible and on budget."
Going from the NIRCam to the WFIRST instrument is not going to be easy, though. The dark energy hunter has a focal plane 200 times larger than the JWST’s infrared instrument, and it will be the perfect companion for JWST.
“WFIRST and JWST will have complementary missions, and WFIRST will be the big-picture instrument that can capture objects of interest, and then JWST can zoom in with more sensitive instruments like NIRCam to get more details,” Dr Alison Nordt, WFIRST project lead at Lockheed Martin, stated previously.
WFIRST will measure the distances and space-time distortions of millions of galaxies, allowing astronomers to work out not only the properties of dark energy today, but also if and how it changed in the past. It will also look closer to home, using its capabilities to search for exoplanets.
NASA will select a winning design next year, which will immediately go into production to avoid delays on the planned mid-2020s launch.