Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)
WFIRST is a space telescope that will take a different view of the universe than its scientific predecessors, like the Hubble Space Telescope. It is a project involving NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Institute of Technology IPAC, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Harris, Ball Aerospace, Teledyne, and other partners.
Harris is carrying out the overall preparation of the telescope hardware to meet mission requirements, including the 2.4-meter primary mirror and the remaining optics and structures to feed the mission’s instruments. Harris has already conducted a successful test of the primary mirror assembly to ensure it performs at WFIRST operating temperatures. To enable the WFIRST science, the telescope will be more stable than any mission in this class and have a wide field of view that is 100 times larger than Hubble.
The telescope was partially constructed for another mission and was transferred to NASA to be repurposed for astrophysics and universe exploration purposes. This approach is cost effective, providing the main framework of the telescope with a mirror nearly twice as large as planned for WFIRST. It expanded mission capability by enabling the Coronagraph Instrument while accelerating the telescope development schedule.
WFIRST is designed to provide data that could settle some of the most enduring mysteries of the universe. These include:
- Dark matter – an invisible substance present in the universe, yet can’t be directly detected
- Dark energy – energy in empty space that causes the universe to expand
- Exoplanets – planets orbiting stars outside our solar system
- New galaxies – millions of as-yet undiscovered galaxies, including many within 500 million years of the Big Bang
WFIRST will survey billions of galaxies, detailing supernovae and other cosmic phenomena. The data from those observations is what will fuel discoveries on dark energy - a mystery that nobody has exactly solved but is understood as the force pushing the universe apart. Details of galaxy distribution over many seasons are the key to these efforts.
WFIRST has two ways to discover exoplanets. One is using the coronagraph instrument, which blocks the glaring light of stars without blocking the planet light. The other is gravitational microlensing, which relies on a massive foreground object to act as a lens to bend the light and magnify a distant star and planet.
The mission will also look at our own Milky Way galaxy, providing details on structure, star birthplaces and even searching for dwarf planets, comets and asteroids we have yet to discover in our own solar system.
WFIRST Compared to Other Space Telescopes and Observatories
WFIRST is the latest in a long line of scientific space telescopes and observatories. They include the “Great Observatories” – the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO), the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. WFIRST joins the James Webb Space Telescope as scientific successors that are in development and awaiting launch.
- WFIRST will have a field of view much greater – or wider – than Hubble or the JWST. It will capture in single image what would take 100 images for Hubble.
- WFIRST has the same size mirror as Hubble, but uses it to see a panoramic view, which enables surveying large swaths of the sky in a much shorter period of time.
- WFIRST is similar to other space telescopes, like Spitzer and JWST, in that it will detects light in the infrared. The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light, which degrades performance for ground observatories.
- Hubble (1990 launch), Chandra (1999 launch), and Spitzer (2003 launch) are still providing data, while the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory completed its mission and safely de-orbited in 2000.