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First Things WFIRST

First Things WFIRST
By Kaitlin Engelbert 02/19/2020
Science has come a long way. We now know, for example, that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. We even have the ability to determine what elements are present in distant planets’ atmospheres and galaxies. However, even with all the scientific and technological advancements over the last century, we have only scratched the surface of what we know and have yet to discover. The fact is that we only know roughly five percent of what makes up the universe. In other words, everything we can see (i.e. oceans, land, trees, animals, elements, insects, etc.) and beyond Earth (i.e., planets, exoplanets, moons, stars, black holes, galaxies, etc.), amounts to just five percent of everything we currently know! The remaining 95 percent of the universe isn’t just empty space either – it consists of a mystery matter and energy that drives our universe’s cosmic structure, behavior and increasingly accelerating expansion.

To help uncover how the universe works, Ball’s diverse team of innovative thinkers has teamed up with NASA to help crack the case on dark matter and dark energy.

 

What is WFIRST?

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is NASA’s future multi-purpose astrophysics observatory. The telescope will provide large-scale survey capability at infrared wavelengths, enabling scientists to study how dark matter and dark energy contribute to the evolution of our universe.
 

How does WFIRST compare to missions like Webb and Hubble?

The primary difference between WFIRST, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or Webb) and Hubble is that WFIRST will have a much larger field of view and will build on the discoveries of Hubble and Webb. WFIRST’s field of view is 100 times wider than Hubble’s. This means WFIRST will be able to collect Hubble-quality data over a much larger area, allowing scientists to map the distribution of galaxies and how this the distribution is being driven by dark matter and dark energy.

Thanks to its larger primary mirror aperture, Webb will be able to collect images at 2.5 times the resolution than WFIRST, enabling the observatory to detect the first stars and galaxies that formed in the early universe. Webb will see “deeper” into the universe to understand star and galaxy formation and give us unprecedented detail on our own solar system and planetary systems within our galaxy. WFIRST will expand on the findings of Webb with its wider field of view to observe what the future of our universe could be and what astronomical candidates are of interest for further study.

The three observatories will complement one another by fulfilling each of their specific science goals aimed at understanding the fate of our universe and our own solar system. Most importantly, Webb and WFIRST will continue where Hubble left off in seeking to understand the conditions that give birth to life in our universe.

 

Where is WFIRST now?

WFIRST successfully passed its preliminary design review in Fall 2019 and is ramping up flight hardware production. As the prime contractor for the Opto-Mechanical Assembly for the Wide Field Instrument (WFI), Ball is finalizing its design and preparing for the flight hardware build.

Ball is supplying the optical metering structure, including the instrument latches, a mechanism that enables full degree of motion for optimal focus, the optical element wheel and filters, as well as a sophisticated thermal subsystem and relative calibration system. These tools will enable WFIRST to fulfill its primary scientific goals by providing measurement calibration and fine-tuning the focus mechanisms on orbit. Ball’s expertise in these areas dates back to the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and our current work on Webb.

 

Why is the WFIRST mission important?

From a science perspective, WFIRST will improve our understanding of the universe through its exploration of dark matter and dark energy. The telescope will expand our knowledge of how dark energy has changed over time. This study of dark energy will help scientists understand why the expansion of our universe is speeding up, and what that means for the future of the universe. Meanwhile, by studying the evolution of galaxies, scientists can infer the effects of dark matter.

WFIRST’s unique approach to identifying and understanding exoplanets – planets that orbit stars beyond our solar system – will be critical in answering the popular question, “are we alone in the universe?”

WFIRST’s WFI instrument will detect exoplanets through microlensing – a process where light from a distant object is “lensed” or amplified by a closer, massive object. This will enable scientists to observe planets smaller than Mars at distances ranging from Venus to Pluto and beyond. Discoveries from WFIRST, designed to be complementary to exoplanet-hunting telescopes like Kepler, will help us learn about the formation and migration of planets, creating systems like our own.

The coronagraph instrument on WFIRST will use novel methods of starlight suppression – a method of exoplanet detection where the telescope blocks out the light of a host star to view the reflected light from planets in the surrounding area. WFIRST’s coronagraph will allow much fainter planets to be observed than is possible with existing instruments. By detecting fainter planets, scientists will have a much larger sample that can be explored in the search for life on other planets. The technologies developed for the WFIRST coronagraph provide an important step towards new coronagraphs that will be able to detect Earth-like planets in the future.

The findings from WFIRST will not only rewrite science textbooks with new data and astonishing images, but also give us valuable insight into how our universe will evolve.
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