Hunting ‘Dark Energy’ on NASA’s Next Big Telescope

WFIRST

WFIRST will have a vast perspective of the sky in high resolution, shown here versus what the Hubble Space Telescope sees. Photo: NASA

WFIRST Will Deliver Biggest Picture of the Sky Yet

Lockheed Martin is beginning instrument studies for the next of NASA’s big telescopes, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, won a concept study for a major part of the Wide Field Imager, which is the primary infrared instrument for the mission.

“We’re in the very early stages of this program, but it is gaining momentum,” said Dr. Alison Nordt, project lead. “We’re able to leverage our groundbreaking work for the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and develop a new cryogenic IR instrument to take in a much wider view of the Sky.”

Similar to NIRCam, the Wide Field Instrument on WFIRST will be a powerful instrument. However, WFIRST will have a massive focal plane array, several times larger than NIRCam, to capture what some would say are panorama photos of the sky.

WFIRST’s mission is to hunt down dark energy, still a mysterious topic in modern astronomy. There is a force powering the universe’s constant expansion, but scientists don’t know much about it. The infrared realm can yield better clues, and WFIRST’s primary instrument will be focused on how to measure it. The Wide Field Instrument will also use microlensing to add to our catalog of known exoplanets. .

“WFIRST and JWST will have complementary missions, and WFIRST will be the big-picture instrument that can capture objects of interest, and then JWST can zoom in with more sensitive instruments like NIRCam to get more details,” Dr. Nordt said.

NASA is sponsoring the ATC to study implementation concepts for the Wide Field Imager Optical-Mechanical Assembly. Lockheed Martin was one of two companies who received study contracts, and the period of performance begins this month, running through July. After that, NASA plans to award a longer formulation study in October.  The current study encompasses designs for optical systems, mechanisms, structure, electronics and thermal control components.

“We have the experience NASA is looking for,” Dr. Nordt said. “The structure is based on the Hubble Space Telescope, and the instrument has similarities to NIRCam. We’re going to leverage our full experience and propose some new technologies that will position us well for the next stage of competition.”