NASA has big hopes for its upcoming major space observatory — the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) — which will take on the bold task of finding answers to some of the biggest questions in astronomy.
WFIRST has been in the cards for nearly a decade and is designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics.
And, according to its design plans, WFIRST will be packing some mean tech "muscle" to do the job.
Cool Features Of The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope
NASA plans to equip its next big space observatory with a gigantic camera featuring 18 detectors. Each detector will be able to capture a 16-megapixel shot, giving WFIRST a field of view 100 times bigger than that of the Hubble Telescope.
Along with this Wide-Field instrument, the agency will also be installing on the new infrared telescope a 2.4-meter mirror — provided by the National Reconnaissance Office in 2012 — as well as a coronagraph instrument, which will allow researchers to study exoplanets in the inner Milky Way.
The coronagraph, which falls under the responsibility of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, is designed to block the glare of individual stars and reveal the faint light of planets orbiting around them.
NASA is also considering the possibility of a "starshade" flying, alongside WFIRST in a separate spacecraft, to block enough starlight for the telescope to perform direct imaging of Earth-sized planets.
"The Wide-Field Instrument will give the telescope the ability to capture a single image with the depth and quality of Hubble, but covering 100 times the area. The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths," announced Paul Hertz, head of NASA's astrophysics division, in a 2016 news release introducing the infrared telescope.
All this will allow WFIRST to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. NASA also envisions the infrared telescope will aid in the discovery of new worlds outside our solar system and advance the search for planets that could be suitable for life.
But it all depends on the external review currently conducted by a panel of independent aero-space experts. NASA commissioned the report in late April to make sure the project stays within budget and is expecting a result in the following few months.
WFIRST Project Budget Concerns
Such a big-scale project requires an equally big-scale investment, and NASA is already concerned WFIRST may exceed the allocated funds.
The project received top priority in the latest astrophysics decadal survey released in 2010. But a 2016 study by the National Academies recommended NASA's dark energy mission — still in the early stages of development — for external review on account of financial worries.
This will be the agency's next major astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch next year, and has a "nominal" launch date of September 2025.
However, the cost of development for the new infrared telescope is increasing at a rapid rate and has long exceeded the $1.6 billion budget estimated in 2010.
The most recent financial projections state WFIRST may end up costing $3.2 billion ($2.4 billion in 2010 dollars).
To keep the project from doubling in cost, NASA may need to rethink the infrared telescope's design and possibly even cut back on some of its features.
WFIRST's most expensive feature is the coronagraph, which a different panel estimated at about $350 million. Other changes to the mission design add another $550 million.
To remain within budget, the agency may need to reduce the coronagraph's capabilities or even remove it from the design plan altogether.
A second possibility is to cut down on the number of camera detectors from the Wide-Field instrument, or limit the time dedicated to survey dark energy.
Another option would be to push back the launch date, but that would hinder WFIRST's chance to overlap with the James Webb telescope and find rare celestial objects that the latter could afterwards study in detail.
"This is a good time to take a look at the scale and scope of the mission," said Jon Morse, former head of NASA's astrophysics division and now chief executive of the BoldlyGo Institute.
The biggest financial concern is that the WFIRST project will follow in the footsteps of the James Webb telescope, whose cost swelled from $1 billion in the early 2000s to $8.8 billion, almost depleting NASA's astrophysics budget.
"We have to make sure that we're learning from our experiences in the past and do not upset that balance," showed Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, in a presentation to the National Academies' Space Studies Board last month.