NASA's Super Powerful Telescope WFIRST is Moving Forward

Tuesday, 09 January 2018 - 6:29PM
Space
NASA
Tuesday, 09 January 2018 - 6:29PM
NASA's Super Powerful Telescope WFIRST is Moving Forward
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab

NASA scientists must be breathing a sigh of relief at the moment, as the high-powered Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) has been saved from development limbo following a new review of the project's budget.

As one of the (potentially) most powerful telescopes to launch in the history of space exploration, WFIRST is an attempt to merge the best of two different types of telescopes in order to give us an unparalleled look at the stars across our entire galaxy.

Within telescopes of this nature, it's necessary to balance expectations with regards to image quality and field of view. To take a particularly clear picture of a distant star, a telescope needs a very narrow view, so it can't take in a lot of data at a time. Alternatively, widening a telescope's view means losing detail in the overall image, and as such, astronomers often have to choose a mid-point between image quality and width of scope when designing their telescopes.

WFIRST is an attempt to get the most from a telescope's field of view without sacrificing too much clarity. The telescope has a far wider field of view than the Hubble, but will hopefully be able to still produce solid images thanks to the inclusion of a coronagraph and focusing mirrors that will correct for errors in the data the telescope takes in.



There's just one problem with such an ambitious project: it's far too expensive to be viable.

Initially, the WFIRST project was greenlit within NASA with an impressive budget of $3.2 billion. As generous as this might have been, it turns out that the full vision of the telescope required even more money, and projections soon ballooned to an unwieldy $3.6 billion. In an effort to save the project from spiraling out of control, it was deemed necessary to "descale" the WFIRST telescope, taking away and scaling back features in order to keep the project to its earlier budget.

Sacrifices have been made, and plenty of experts are probably weeping as their favorite functions have been abandoned, but the job has been done. The WFIRST is back on track, and working towards an initial review to be completed by April of this year. Its field of view was supposed to be 100 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope, so we'll have to see if that sticks in the new version.

All going well, WFIRST will launch some time next decade, and will be used, among other things, for attempting to detect dark energy. We know that this energy must exist somewhere, but without a good look at it, we're unsure of what form it takes, and whether it's something we've seen before, or something entirely unprecedented.

There'll also be an opportunity to take detailed data readings on distant planets throughout the galaxy, helping us to detect foreign worlds wherever they may exist, and helping us to get a better view of what might be out there among the stars.

It's a shame that we won't be getting the big, complex, versatile satellite telescope that NASA had originally been planning, but the loss of some functions has managed to save the project from development oblivion, and this means that, eventually, we're going to be able to learn far more about our stellar neighborhood, and the galaxy in general.

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