WFIRST: Work On NASA's 'Spy Telescope' Begins

WFIRST mission conception image
This is an artist's impression of the WFIRST mission in Earth orbit. (Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

Next month, NASA will begin work on its next major space observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope, which is finishing construction for launch in 2018. The new mission is called WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope) and will investigate dark energy, exoplanets and galaxy formation. It is expected to fly in 2024.

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"Formulation is when we formalize the mission requirements," said David Spergel, co-chair of the WFIRST science definition team, in an e-mail to Discovery News.

"An example of something that we will decide during formulation is the filters that we will use. We need to weigh the relative merits of being sensitive to bluer photons versus having sharper wavelength coverage … Improved blue sensitivity will help us better characterize the properties of stars in nearby galaxies, but possibly at the cost of less accurate determination of distance to galaxies through photometry."

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WFIRST's advantage is its immense field of view. It uses an old, unflown spy telescope that has the same mirror size as Hubble — 2.4 meters — but a field of view 200 times wider. This will allow it to cover more sky at greater depth in the infrared than any observatory before, Spergel said.

Additionally, a coronograph (an instrument that blocks light from bright objects) being constructed for the mission will be "orders of magnitude more sensitive" than other space coronographs, he said, allowing for exoplanet properties to be better understood.

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The mission will use a National Reconnaissance Office telescope, which was gifted to NASA a few years ago, while resurfacing the mirror and adding instruments and electronics. NRO actually gave two telescopes to NASA, but for the moment the second one will be used as a backup for WFIRST.

WFIRST's formulation phase comes amid a budget boost from Congress, which approved a fiscal 2016 budget for the project of $90 million, more than six times NASA's $14 million request. WFIRST is also the top mission in the National Research Council's decadal survey of 2010, where astrophysicists were asked to identify their research priorities.

Originally published on Discovery News.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: