WFIRST: A small step toward answering big questions

NASA has committed to a significant upgrade in its ability to explore planets in other solar systems and to understanding the force which drives the expansion of the universe. The tool used in these searches will collect so much data that NASA will allow the public, Citizen Scientists, to assist in its analysis.

The project is called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST. This week NASA’s Program Management Council approved plans for a mid-2020’s launch of an observatory which, as its names suggests, will explore in the near infrared range of the spectrum.

WFIRST is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary. The observatory will use the same basic science as Hubble, Spitzer and NASA’s other space based observatories but with the benefit of all the technological advances over the last several years.

The 2.7 meter primary lens WFIRST will use was given to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office.

Exoplanets:

The search for exoplanets in particular will get significantly more muscle. WFIRST will provide Hubble-quality over 100 times the area of sky as shown in the pic below. Hubble’s coverage is shown in the upper left hand corner whereas WFIRST’s coverage is the entire area shown.

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WFIRST will use microlensing to look for planets as does Spitzer. A graphic from the Spitzer website gives a great explanation of how microlensing works. Spitzer is roughly three hundred and fifty miles from Earth. WFIRST will be positioned approximately one million miles from Earth looking toward the center of our galaxy into an area filled with stars.

WF0010

Dark Energy:

In 1998 scientists discovered that the universe is expanding and that the rate of expansion is accelerating. There is no clear explanation as to why this is happening although scientists believe that one of two things is true. First, we have discovered something which cannot be accounted for by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Second, the expansion is being fueled by a new unknown and unseen form of energy.

As a first step to understanding the cause WFIRST will measure the brightness and positon of galaxies and track changes over time.

Citizen Scientists:

NASA’s actual name for this initiative is the Guest Observer Program. As with Hubble generated data, NASA will accept proposals from outside groups to analyze data collected by WFIRST. If past experience is a guide the Guest Observer Program will become the dominant research effort over time.

NASA is using the most sophisticated technology known to man, with programs conceived by the most intelligent and capable scientists the world has ever seen to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe.

It is amazing to think of what we can do. It is humbling to realize how much more we have to do.