NASA is on course to find as many as 1,400 new exoplanets with a groundbreaking space telescope preparing for launch next year.
The £2.4billion ‘WFIRST’ is a spiritual successor to the Hubble telescope – but it’ll be able to produce images 100x bigger.
NASA The WFIRST space telescope will map never before seen areas of the universe
Nasa first confirmed plans to create the WFIRST (or Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope) telescope back in 2016, with a launch date set for January 1, 2020.
Its primary mission is to search for alien worlds, and “paves the way for a more accurate, more focused search for extraterrestrial life”.
The idea is that if we have a better understanding of the planets outside of our Solar System, it’ll be easier for us to uncover alien life.
And a new report by Ohio State University suggests that WFIRST could find “as many as 1,400 new planets”.
NASA Nasa plans to launch WFIRST into space on January 1, 2020
This is thanks to the powerful reach of the WFIRST telescope, which can probe deeper (and see more widely) than was possible with the Hubble and Kepler telescopes.
“We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are,” said Ohio State’s Matthew Penny, the lead author on the paper.
“To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything.”
Alamy This image was captured by Hubble, which is far less advanced than WFIRST
Researchers expect WFIRST’s planet discoveries to be further from their stars than most planets found so far.
New technology allows the telescope to spot planets with larger orbits.
It will use a technique called gravitational microlensing, which relies on the gravity of stars and planets to “bend and magnify the light” coming from stars that pass behind them.
This microlensing effect allows a space telescope to find planets orbiting stars that are thousands of lightyears away from Earth.
The difficulty is that the microlensing effect is only visible for “a few hours once every few million years”.
NASA The WFIRST space telescope has a wide field of view, and captures very high-resolution images
So WFIRST will spend long stretches of time monitoring 100million stars at the centre of the Milky Way.
Thanks to improvements in the telescope’s core technology, it will be able to map our galaxy (and others) 100 faster than Hubble.
It will scan a small area of the universe (roughly 2 square degrees) at a higher resolution than any mission previously.
“Although it’s a small fraction of the sky, it’s huge compared to what other space telescopes can do,” Penny explained.
“It’s WFIRST’s unique combination – both a wide field of view and a high resolution – that makes it so powerful for microlensing planet searches.
“Previous space telescopes, including Hubble and James Webb, have had to choose one or the other.”
Deepest ever view of the wonders of Space
The WFIRST telescope also benefits from infrared scanning, too.
“Infrared light allows WFIRST to see through dust that lies in the plane of the Milky Way in between us and the galactic centre, something optical telescopes on the ground cannot do,” said Penny.
“This gives WFIRST access to parts of the sky that are more densely packed with stars.”
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Nasa recently admitted it is “well on its way” to finding alien life.
Nasa’s ill-fated Opportunity rover was pronounced dead earlier this month after an enormous Martian dust storm knocked it for six.
The agency previously admitted that “tiny super-intelligent” aliens may have already visited Earth.
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