Infographic of NASA’s space telescope mission. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Following in the footsteps of the Hubble Space Telescope, new research for a telescope with the power to provide a view of the sky almost 100 times clearer than ever before, is currently under development at Ohio State.

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, will continue the search for exoplanets and dark energy, while using high-resolution infrared detectors to survey large areas of the sky. Exoplanets are planets that orbit a star, but are not part of a designated solar system, while dark energy is unknown energy hypothesized to permeate all of space.

In charge of simulations and developing important computational methods for the WFIRST mission, Matthew Penny, senior postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State and author of the study, has worked on the project for the past seven years.  

“I’m really excited about learning about the kinds of planetary systems that are out there,”  Penny said. “We know of lots of exoplanets so far, but with the techniques used so far we can only find those that are either closer in to their star than the Earth is from the sun, or rely on the orbits of the planets to wobble.”

While the new telescope is similar to the James Webb Telescope — Hubble’s successor and another infrared technology, the biggest technological difference between the two is WFIRST’s field of view.

In a process called microlensing, the mass of planets and celestial objects that are light years away are detected by measuring the effect of gravity on light passing by the bodies. According to NASA’s website, it’s expected to use less observational time than previous instruments.

While microlensing has been done before, this research will tackle doing so at a much further distance with more clarity.

“The challenge is figuring out what effects you want to simulate that will allow you to predict the yield of the survey accurately,” Penny said.

Working to speed up these simulations, Penny’s team is trying to determine areas where WFIRST has a high chance of discovering a planet.

Samson Johnson, a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy who also works with Penny on the mission, calls the challenge of optimizing the telescope a “balancing act.”

“We don’t have a good picture of what’s going on in the outer parts of the stellar systems,”   Johnson said. “Being able to understand a complete picture of planets in the Milky Way ultimately leads to a clearer picture of how and where planets form.”

Comparing previous telescopes to swiss-army knives because they were able to accomplish so many tasks, Johnson said that WFIRST is considered to have a direct mission and a different design from previous iterations.    

“The mission isn’t in its final form yet,” Johnson said. “The actual engineering and architecture is always changing, so we do have to be responsive to how we design the surveys to that.”

Although the mission is still six years from a launch date, NASA has designed a six-year operation plan for WFIRST. It is expected to find about 2,600 new exoplanets while on its mission through the Milky Way.

“Now’s a great time to be excited about astronomy,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of big things on the horizon and it’s sort of like astronomy’s heyday right now.”