WFIRST: Uncovering The Mysteries Of The Universe

September 22, 2016 – the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is a NASA observatory designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. WFIRST will have two instruments, the Wide Field Instrument, and the Coronagraph Instrument.

WFIRST, which will have a primary mirror the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope’s primary mirror, was the top-rated large-scale mission in the 2010 decadal survey for astrophysics. The Wide Field Instrument will have a field of view that is 100 times greater than the Hubble infrared instrument, capturing more of the sky with less observing time. As the primary instrument, the Wide Field Instrument will measure light from a billion galaxies over the course of the mission lifetime. It will perform a microlensing survey of the inner Milky Way to find ~2,600 exoplanets. The Coronagraph Instrument will perform high contrast imaging and spectroscopy of dozens of individual nearby exoplanets.

Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colorado, was selected by NASA in March 2016 to deliver a concept study of the Wide Field Instrument. Ball has had successful experience with several similar precision optical efforts, including Ball’s optical system for James Webb, the Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3, and the Operational Land Imager aboard the Landsat 8 mission.

The telescope’s sensitivity and wide view will enable a large-scale search for exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of millions of stars in the crowded central region of our galaxy. The survey will net thousands of new exoplanets similar in size and distance from their star as those in our own solar system, complementing the work started by NASA’s Kepler mission and the upcoming work of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Employing multiple techniques, astronomers also will use WFIRST to track how dark energy and dark matter have affected the evolution of our universe. Dark energy is a mysterious, negative pressure that has been speeding up the expansion of the universe. Dark matter is invisible material that makes up most of the matter in our universe.

By measuring the distances of thousands of supernovae, astronomers can map in detail how cosmic expansion has increased with time. WFIRST also can precisely measure the shapes, positions and distances of millions of galaxies to track the distribution and growth of cosmic structures, including galaxy clusters and the dark matter accompanying them.

WFIRST is designed for a 6 year mission, and will launch on an EELV out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. WFIRST is slated to launch in the mid-2020s and will begin operations after travelling to a gravitational balance point known as Earth-Sun L2, which is located about one million miles from Earth in a direction directly opposite the Sun.

WFIRST is managed at Goddard, with participation by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, also in Pasadena, and a science team comprised of members from U.S. research institutions across the country.