WFIRST Gets Go Ahead

WFIRST Gets Go Ahead

NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) took a step forward on Wednesday with approval from NASA’s Program Management Council.  WFIRST will be the next large (flagship) space telescope after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and will search for exoplanets and aid in understanding dark energy and dark matter.

WFIRST was the top priority for a flagship space telescope in the 2010 National Research Council (NRC) astrophysics Decadal Survey New Worlds New Horizons.  Cost overruns and schedule delays on JWST meant that WFIRST has had to wait much longer than expected to move forward.  Funding for JWST had to pass its peak before a funding wedge to initiate WFIRST opened up.  JWST, scheduled for launch in 2018, is finally past that phase.

WFIRST has been through many changes since the NWNH Decadal Survey largely because the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, transferred to NASA a 2.4 meter space-qualified  telescope that it no longer needed.  The NRO hardware is called Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) and the project is now often referred to as WFIRST/AFTA. 

NASA asked the NRC to review the design changes associated with using the NRO hardware.  The 2014 NRC report expressed concern about the cost implications, especially if a coronagraph was added to the mission.  NASA decided to add a coronagraph anyway because it will enhance the scientific capability of the spacecraft.  The coronagraph will block the light of a star, enabling precise measurements of what is around the star, such as planets and their atmospheres.   WFIRST is expected to detect thousands of new exoplanets.   Launch is anticipated in the mid-2020s.

Scientists use the terms dark energy and dark matter to refer to the approximately 96 percent of the universe that we do not yet understand.  Scientists concluded in the 1990s that we understand only four percent of what is in the universe, with dark energy comprising approximately 72 percent and dark matter about 24 percent.    Dark energy is an unknown force that is pushing the universe apart at a greater rate than expected.  Dark matter is “invisible material that makes up most of the matter in the universe,” according to NASA. 

Like JWST, WFIRST is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center are participating in the project.

NASA’s Program Management Council evaluates the content, cost, risk management and performance of the agency’s programs and projects.  It decided to move forward with WFIRST yesterday.

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