SciTech

NASA mission could find 1,000 planets

The Hubble Space Telescope was a technological achievement that gave humanity a clearer view of the deep cosmos than ever before. Now, NASA plans to launch a new telescope called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) that will hunt for new planets and research the nature of dark energy, continuing the work done by its predecessor Kepler.

According to a study by a team of astronomers at Ohio State University, the potential reach of the new telescope is quite impressive. What distinguishes WFIRST from past telescope designs is that it leverages the technique of gravitational microlensing, which depends on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light from stars passing behind them. This will allow WFIRST to detect planets farther away from their host stars, leading to the potential discovery of over 1,000 more planets. Furthermore, around 100 of those soon-to-be discovered planets may have a mass lower than or similar to that of Earth.

Compared to past projects, WFIRST represents a significant improvement. Although it is set to continuously scan only a small portion of the sky — no more than two square degrees — it is still an appreciably larger area than past telescopes were capable of, and at a higher resolution as well. In addition, the WFIRST will include infrared imaging, which will allow the telescope to see through clouds of cosmic dust, making it possible to accurately survey areas of the sky that are more densely packed with stars and previously inaccessible to optical telescopes.

The discovery of new planets can not only lead to a greater understanding of the structure of our galaxy, but also help us understand better the origins of our universe, and the mechanics that shape stars and planets and solar systems similar to ours. Perhaps when deep space travel becomes feasible, we may visit and seek to colonize these planets if they’re similar enough to Earth, something that scientists have dreamt of for decades.

For now, the WFIRST project is still in its initial planning stages. NASA first announced plans to move forward with the initiative in Feb. 2016 and began planning in May 2018. It may be a quite a few years before WFIRST takes flight, but when it does, we will gain an exciting new perspective on the nature and behavior of distant planets, and it will reinforce the notion that space is not nearly as empty as we once thought it was.