NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope Will Send the Hunt for Exoplanets Into Warp Speed

 In Space

A new NASA space obser­va­to­ry could push planet-hunt­ing for­ward at warp speed by gath­er­ing data up to 500 times faster than the ven­er­a­ble Hubble Space Telescope does. 

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (for­mer­ly known as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST) passed a key ground-system design review this month, according to NASA. Roman, as the tele­scope is called in short, relies on tech­nol­o­gy that was originally built for spy missions on Earth. Instead, after its launch in the mid-2020s, Roman will spy on exo­plan­ets across the galaxy, as well as many other cosmic phe­nom­e­na.

Roman will be opti­mized for a kind of plan­e­tary survey called microlensing, which is an obser­va­tion­al effect that hap­pens when mass warps the fabric of space-time. At its most extreme, this kind of grav­i­ta­tion­al lens­ing is used to observe very mas­sive objects such as galax­ies or black holes. In minia­ture, how­ev­er, microlens­ing cre­ates enough “warp­ing” in small­er stars and plan­ets for planet-hunt­ing.

Related: 7 ways to discover alien planets

At this small­er scale, microlens­ing hap­pens when one star aligns close­ly with a second star, from the van­tage point of Earth. The star that is closer to our planet focus­es and ampli­fies the light from the star that is fur­ther away, allow­ing sci­en­tists to see it in a little more detail than usual. Even plan­ets that are orbit­ing the fore­ground star can mag­ni­fy the star’s light, cre­at­ing a spike in bright­ness.

Roman’s microlens­ing capa­bil­i­ties will be cou­pled with a wide field of view that is 100 times larger than Hubble’s, while cap­tur­ing stars and plan­ets with the same res­o­lu­tion as the famed tele­scope. NASA expects Roman to pick up more data than any of the agen­cy’s other astro­physics mis­sions.

Roman’s efforts will build on other NASA mis­sions opti­mized for planet-hunt­ing, includ­ing the past Kepler mission that found thou­sands of exo­plan­ets and the cur­rent Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) look­ing for Earth-like plan­ets close to us. Hubble, while not designed for planet-hunt­ing since it launched just when dis­cov­er­ies were begin­ning, has done plenty of exoplanet science as well. Numerous obser­va­to­ries on Earth have found their own plan­ets or con­firmed obser­va­tions made by space tele­scopes, cre­at­ing a larger com­mu­ni­ty of exo­plan­et sci­ence that Roman will con­tribute to after its launch.

“With such a large number of stars and fre­quent obser­va­tions, Roman’s microlens­ing survey will see thou­sands of plan­e­tary events,” Rachel Akeson, task lead for the Roman Science Support Center at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, said in a NASA statement. “Each one will have a unique sig­na­ture, which we can use to deter­mine the plan­et’s mass and dis­tance from its star.”

Gathering the data is one chal­lenge. Parsing and under­stand­ing the infor­ma­tion for dis­cov­er­ies and “lessons learned” is anoth­er. The ground sys­tems sup­port­ing Roman will rely on cloud-based remote ser­vices and advanced ana­lyt­i­cal tools to make sense of the enor­mous amounts of data the tele­scope col­lects: Roman’s design calls for the tele­scope to watch hun­dreds of mil­lions of stars every 15 min­utes for sev­er­al months at a stretch.

Another notable change from pre­vi­ous flag­ship mis­sions is the speed at which Roman’s data will become public; NASA has promised to make all data avail­able only days after obser­va­tions are col­lect­ed.

“Since sci­en­tists every­where will have rapid access to the data, they will be able to quick­ly dis­cov­er short-lived phe­nom­e­na, such as super­no­va explo­sions. Detecting these phe­nom­e­na quick­ly will allow other tele­scopes to per­form follow-up obser­va­tions,” NASA added in the same statement.

Exoplanets and super­novas are not the only things Roman will dis­cov­er. It will hunt for brown dwarfs, which are “failed stars” (objects much more mas­sive than Jupiter that are not quite large enough to sus­tain nuclear fusion). Other expect­ed astron­o­my tar­gets include runaway stars and bizarre cosmic objects such as the neu­tron stars and black holes that are left behind when stars run out of fuel.

Roman will also join other obser­va­to­ries in trying to figure out the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which is impos­si­ble to observe except through mon­i­tor­ing effects on other objects. Roman’s obser­va­tions will allow the tele­scope col­lect pre­cise mea­sure­ments from numer­ous galax­ies, map­ping the dis­tri­b­u­tion and struc­ture of reg­u­lar matter and dark matter across the uni­verse’s his­to­ry. 

Among other appli­ca­tions, Roman’s work in dark energy and dark matter could help sci­en­tists under­stand why the uni­verse is expand­ing, and why that expan­sion is accel­er­at­ing as the uni­verse gets bigger. That dis­cov­ery of accel­er­a­tion got an assist from Hubble in the 1990s, eventually leading to a Nobel Prize in 2011

Another Roman part­ner­ship with its pre­de­ces­sor will be follow up on Hubble’s Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS). This survey charted how galaxies develop over time; Hubble took 21 days to gather the infor­ma­tion, but Roman will only take half an hour to con­duct a sim­i­lar inves­ti­ga­tion. 

“With its incred­i­bly fast survey speeds, Roman will observe plan­ets by the thou­sands, galax­ies by the mil­lions, and stars by the bil­lions,” Karoline Gilbert, mis­sion sci­en­tist for the Roman Science Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in the same NASA state­ment. “These vast datasets will allow us to address cosmic mys­ter­ies that hint at new fun­da­men­tal physics.”

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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