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The New Telescope Could Find More Than 1,000 Planets

February 26, 2019
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The New Telescope Could Find More Than 1,000 Planets

NASA’s new telescope, WFIRST, will give humans the largest, deepest, clearest picture of the universe since Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA has scheduled the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to launch next year. Experts hope it will help unravel some of the biggest mysteries of the universe.

The new telescope could discover as many as 1,400 new planets in just 2 square degrees of the night sky. It will pave the way for a more accurate and focused search for extraterrestrial life.

A study by astronomers at the Ohio State University published Feb. 25 in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series reveals that the US$3.2 billion, WFIRST could also hold the keys to understanding how the Universe expands.

Scientists published their work Feb. 25 in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

“We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are,” said Matthew Penny, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio State Department of Astronomy. “To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything.”

WFIRST is an upgrade on the Kepler Telescope which went offline in October 2018 and will be able to search for more planets, and ultimately life.

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Kepler observed distant stars and looked for shadows orbiting nearby to the host star which would signal a planet close to earth. So, most of the planets Kepler found would be too close to their host star to support life.

But WFIRST will use gravitational microlensing, which is a technique able to see light being bent by the gravitational pull of a planet. So, the telescope will be able to spot celestial bodies at a more suitable orbiting distance. This would allow it to support life.

“Kepler began the search by looking for planets that orbit their stars closer than the Earth is to our Sun,” Penny said. “WFIRST will complete it by finding planets with larger orbits.”

In February 2019 the Trump administration recommended terminating the development of WFIRST. This was due to a reduction in the overall NASA astrophysics budget and higher priorities elsewhere in the agency. Although Congress later reinstated it giving NASA an 8% budget increase.

The new telescope will be able to map the Milky Way and other galaxies 100 times faster than the famous Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.

NASA designed WFIRST to research three key areas: exoplanets, dark matter/dark energy, and the formation of stars and planets.

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Thumbnail image: Artistic rendering of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. Credit: Nasa/GSFC

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