WFIRST telescope passes preliminary design review

News release from NASA


A computer-generated image of NASA’s WFIRST observatory. Image: NASA

On schedule to launch in the mid-2020s, NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission will help uncover some of the biggest mysteries in the cosmos. The state-of-the-art telescope on the WFIRST spacecraft will play a significant role in this, providing the largest picture of the universe ever seen with the same depth and precision as the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope for WFIRST has successfully passed its preliminary design review, a major milestone for the mission. This means the telescope has met the performance, schedule, and budget requirements to advance to the next stage of development, where the team will finalise its design.

“It’s exciting to picture our new telescope out in space, exploring the universe, and we look forward to pushing the boundaries of human knowledge,” said Scott Smith, WFIRST telescope manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

WFIRST is leveraging existing hardware that was transferred to NASA, and the development is much further along at this point than it would be if the telescope had originated with WFIRST. While many of the inherited components are being modified or reconfigured to function as part of the final design, the telescope is already at a very advanced stage of design.

WFIRST is a high-precision survey mission that will advance our understanding of fundamental physics. WFIRST is similar to other space telescopes, like Spitzer and the James Webb Space Telescope, in that it will detect infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light, which presents challenges for observatories on the ground. WFIRST has the advantage of flying in space, above the atmosphere.

The WFIRST telescope will collect and focus light using a primary mirror that is 2.4 metres in diameter. While it’s the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope’s main mirror, it is only one-fourth the weight, showcasing an impressive improvement in telescope technology.

The mirror gathers light and sends it on to a pair of science instruments. The spacecraft’s giant camera, the Wide Field Instrument (WFI), will enable astronomers to map the presence of mysterious dark matter, which is known only through its gravitational effects on normal matter. The WFI will also help scientists investigate the equally mysterious “dark energy,” which causes the universe’s expansion to accelerate. Whatever its nature, dark energy may hold the key to understanding the fate of the cosmos.

In addition, the WFI will survey our own galaxy to further our understanding of what planets orbit other stars, using the telescope’s ability to sense both smaller planets and more distant planets than any survey before. This survey will help determine whether our solar system is common, unusual, or nearly unique in the galaxy. The WFI will have the same resolution as Hubble, yet has a field of view that is 100 times greater, combining excellent image quality with the power to conduct large surveys that would take Hubble hundreds of years to complete.

WFIRST scientists and engineers pose with the telescope’s primary mirror in a clean room at L3 Harris Technologies facility in Rochester, New York. Image: L3 Harris Technologies

WFIRST’s Coronagraph Instrument (CGI) will directly image exoplanets by blocking out the light of their host stars. To date, astronomers have directly imaged only a small fraction of exoplanets, so WFIRST’s advanced techniques will expand our inventory and enable us to learn more about them. Results from the CGI will provide the first opportunity to observe and characterise exoplanets similar to those in our solar system, located between three and 10 times Earth’s distance from the Sun, or from about midway to Jupiter to about the distance of Saturn in our solar system. Studying the physical properties of exoplanets that are more similar to Earth will take us a step closer to discovering habitable planets.

The team at Harris Corporation in Rochester, New York, the prime contractor for the telescope, is making significant strides in modifying the preexisting hardware for the spacecraft.

“Both mirrors are actively being shaped to the unique optical requirements of the telescope,” said Bill Gattle, president of Space Systems for L3 Harris Technologies. “We’re very excited to be contributing to this world-class observatory and the groundbreaking science it will deliver.”