WFIRST Space Telescope Fitted for Starglasses
An optical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, Camilo Mejia Prada, shines a light on the interior of a testbed for an instrument called a coronagraph that will fly aboard the WFIRST space telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Matthew Luem
When a new NASA space telescope opens its eyes in the mid-2020s, it will peer at the universe through some of the most sophisticated sunglasses ever designed.
This multi-layered technology, the coronagraph instrument, might more rightly be called "starglasses": a system of masks, prisms, detectors and even self-flexing mirrors built to block out the glare from distant stars - and reveal the planets in orbit around them.
When a new NASA space telescope opens its eyes in the mid 2020s, it will peer at the universe through some of the most sophisticated sunglasses ever designed.
Normally, that glare is overwhelming, blotting out any chance of seeing planets orbiting other stars, called exoplanets, said Jason Rhodes, the project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
A star's photons - particles of light - vastly overpower any light coming from an orbiting planet when they hit the telescope.
"What we're trying to do is cancel out a billion photons from the star for every one we capture from the planet," Rhodes said.
And WFIRST's coronagraph just completed a major milestone: a preliminary design review by NASA. That means the instrument has met all design, schedule and budget requirements, and can now proceed to the next phase: building hardware that will fly in space. It's one of a series of such reviews examining every facet of the mission, said WFIRST Project Scientist Jeffrey Kruk of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"Every one of these reviews is comprehensive," Kruk said. "We go over all aspects of the mission, to show that everything hangs together."
The WFIRST mission's coronagraph is meant to demonstrate the power of increasingly advanced technology. As it captures light directly from large, gaseous exoplanets, and from disks of dust and gas surrounding other stars, it will point the way to technologies for even larger space telescopes.
Future telescopes with even more sophisticated coronagraphs will be able to generate single pixel "images" of rocky planets the size of Earth. Then the light can be spread into a rainbow called a "spectrum," revealing which gases are present in the planet's atmosphere - perhaps oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, and maybe even signs of life.
"With WFIRST we'll be able to get images and spectra of these large planets, with the goal of proving technologies that will be used in a future mission - to eventually look at small rocky planets that could have liquid water on their surfaces, or even signs of life, like our own," Rhodes said.
In this way, WFIRST is a kind of pioneer. That's why NASA considers the coronagraph to be a "technology demonstration." While it is likely to generate important scientific discoveries, its main job is to prove to the scientific community that complex coronagraphs really can work in space.
"This may be the most complicated astronomical instrument ever flown," Rhodes said.
Why This Coronagraph Is Different
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, in orbit since 1990, is so far the only NASA astrophysics flagship mission to include coronagraphs - far simpler and less sophisticated versions than will fly on WFIRST.
But by the time it launches in the mid 2020s, WFIRST will be the third such mission to include coronagraph technology. NASA's massive James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2021, will include a coronagraph with a sharpness of vision greater than Hubble's, but without the starlight suppression capability of WFIRST.
"WFIRST should be two or three orders of magnitude more powerful than any other coronagraph ever flown" in its ability to distinguish a planet from its star, Rhodes said. "There should be a chance for some really compelling science, even though it's just a tech demo."
The two flexible mirrors inside the coronagraph are key components. As light that has traveled tens of light-years from an exoplanet enters the telescope, thousands of actuators move like pistons, changing the shape of the mirrors in real time. The flexing of these "deformable mirrors" compensates for tiny flaws and changes in the telescope's optics.
Changes on the mirrors' surfaces are so precise they can compensate for errors smaller than the width of a strand of DNA.
These mirrors, in tandem with high-tech "masks," another major advance, squelch the star's diffraction - the bending of light waves around the edges of light-blocking elements inside the coronagraph.
The result: blinding starlight is sharply dimmed, and faintly glowing, previously hidden planets appear.
The star-dimming technology also could deliver the clearest-ever images of distant star systems' formative years - when they are still swaddled in disks of dust and gas as infant planets take shape inside.
"The debris disks we see today around other stars are brighter and more massive than what we have in our own solar system," said Vanessa Bailey, an astronomer at JPL and instrument technologist for the WFIRST coronagraph. "WFIRST's coronagraph instrument could study fainter, more diffuse disk material that's more like the Main Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt, and other dust orbiting the Sun."
That could yield deep insights into how our solar system formed.
Kruk said the instrument's deformable mirrors and other advanced technology - known as "active wavefront control" - should mean a leap of 100 to 1,000 times the capability of previous coronagraphs.
"When you see an opportunity like this to really open new frontiers in a new field, you can't help but be excited by that," he said.
Once the coronagraph technology is successfully demonstrated over the mission's first 18 months, WFIRST's coronagraph could become open to the scientific community. A "Participating Scientist Program" would invite a broader variety of observers to conduct experiments beyond the demonstration phase.
The coronagraph's advancement through the design review milestone is part of a development schedule now moving at a fast clip. A giant camera that will also fly on the spacecraft, called the Wide-Field Instrument, cleared the same hurdle in June. It is considered the space telescope's main instrument.
Rhodes likes to compare WFIRST to the history-making Mars Pathfinder mission. After landing on the Red Planet in 1997, the Pathfinder lander unleashed a small rover, named Sojourner, to trundle on its own around the landing site and examine nearby rocks.
"That was a tech demo," Rhodes said. "The goal was to show that a rover works on Mars. But it went on to do some very interesting science during its lifetime. So we're hopeful the same is going to be true of WFIRST's coronagraph tech demo."
NASA to Make Announcement About WFIRST Space Telescope Mission
NASA will host a special edition of NASA Science Live at 11 a.m. EDT, Wednesday, May 20, to share an exciting announcement about the agency’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission. The episode will air live on NASA’s website, NASA YouTube, NASA Facebook and Twitter/Periscope.
Members of the mission will respond to questions from the livestream chat in real time during the episode. Follow @NASA and @NASAWFIRST on Facebook and Twitter for additional information.
WFIRST is a space telescope that will conduct unprecedented large surveys of the infrared universe to explore everything from our solar system to the edge of the observable universe, including planets throughout our galaxy and the nature of dark energy.
WFIRST is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with participation by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the California Institute of Technology’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center in Pasadena, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and a science team comprising scientists from research institutions across the United States.
NASA Telescope Named For ‘Mother of Hubble’ Nancy Grace Roman
NASA is naming its next-generation space telescope currently under development, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), in honor of Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer, who paved the way for space telescopes focused on the broader universe.
The newly named Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope – or Roman Space Telescope, for short – is set to launch in the mid-2020s. It will investigate long-standing astronomical mysteries, such as the force behind the universe’s expansion, and search for distant planets beyond our solar system.
Considered the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which launched 30 years ago, Roman tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space. She left behind a tremendous legacy in the scientific community when she died in 2018.
“It is because of Nancy Grace Roman’s leadership and vision that NASA became a pioneer in astrophysics and launched Hubble, the world’s most powerful and productive space telescope,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I can think of no better name for WFIRST, which will be the successor to NASA’s Hubble and Webb Telescopes.”
Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who worked with NASA on the Hubble and WFIRST space telescopes, said, "It is fitting that as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, NASA has announced the name of their new WFIRST telescope in honor of Dr. Nancy Roman, the Mother of Hubble – well deserved. It recognizes the incredible achievements of women in science and moves us even closer to no more hidden figures and no more hidden galaxies."
Who Was Nancy Grace Roman?
Born on May 16, 1925, in Nashville, Tennessee, Roman consistently persevered in the face of challenges that plagued many women of her generation interested in science. By seventh grade, she knew she wanted to be an astronomer. Despite being discouraged about going into science – the head of Swarthmore College’s physics department told her he usually dissuaded girls from majoring in physics, but that she “might make it” – Roman earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Swarthmore in 1946 and a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1949.
She remained at Chicago for six years and made discoveries about the compositions of stars that had implications for the evolution of our Milky Way galaxy. Knowing that her chances of achieving tenure at a university as a woman were slim at that time, she took a position at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and made strides in researching cosmic questions through radio waves.
Roman came to NASA in 1959, just six months after the agency had been established. At that time, she served as the chief of astronomy and relativity in the Office of Space Science, managing astronomy-related programs and grants.
“I knew that taking on this responsibility would mean that I could no longer do research, but the challenge of formulating a program from scratch that I believed would influence astronomy for decades to come was too great to resist,” she said in a NASA interview.
This was a difficult era for women who wanted to advance in scientific research. While Roman said that men generally treated her equally at NASA, she also revealed in one interview that she had to use the prefix “Dr.” with her name because “otherwise, I could not get past the secretaries.”
But she persisted in her vision to establish new ways to probe the secrets of the universe. When she arrived at NASA, astronomers could obtain data from balloons, sounding rockets and airplanes, but they could not measure all the wavelengths of light. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out much of the radiation that comes from the distant universe. What’s more, only a telescope in space has the luxury of perpetual nighttime and doesn’t have to shut down during the day. Roman knew that to see the universe through more powerful, unblinking eyes, NASA would have to send telescopes to space.
Through Roman’s leadership, NASA launched four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972. While only two of the four were successful, they demonstrated the value of space-based astrophysics and represented the precursors to Hubble. She also championed the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which was built in the 1970s as a joint project between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the United Kingdom, as well as the Cosmic Background Explorer, which measured the leftover radiation from the big bang and led to two of its leading scientists receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Above all, Roman is credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In the mid-1960s, she set up a committee of astronomers and engineers to envision a telescope that could accomplish important scientific goals. She convinced NASA and Congress that it was a priority to launch the most powerful space telescope the world had ever seen.
Hubble turned out to be the most scientifically revolutionary space telescope of all time. Ed Weiler, Hubble’s chief scientist until 1998, called Roman “the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.”
“Nancy Grace Roman was a leader and advocate whose dedication contributed to NASA seriously pursuing the field of astrophysics and taking it to new heights,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Her name deserves a place in the heavens she studied and opened for so many.”
What is the Roman Space Telescope?
The Roman Space Telescope will be a NASA observatory designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets and infrared astrophysics. The telescope has a primary mirror that is 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) in diameter and is the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope's primary mirror. The Roman Space Telescope is designed to have two instruments, the Wide Field Instrument and a technology demonstration Coronagraph Instrument. The Wide Field Instrument will have a field of view that is 100 times greater than the Hubble infrared instrument, allowing it to capture more of the sky with less observing time. The Coronagraph Instrument will perform high contrast imaging and spectroscopy of individual nearby exoplanets.
The WFIRST project passed a critical programmatic and technical milestone in February, giving the mission the official green light to begin hardware development and testing. With the passage of this latest key milestone, the team will begin finalizing the mission design by building engineering test units and models to ensure the design will hold up under the extreme conditions during launch and while in space.
NASA’s Fiscal Year 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act funds the WFIRST program through September 2020. It is not included in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, as the administration wants to focus on completing the James Webb Space Telescope.
NASA receives $23.271 billion in fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending bill
WASHINGTON — Congress will provide NASA with nearly $23.3 billion in the final fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending bill, restoring several science programs but falling far short of the funding sought for a lunar lander program.
Congress released the omnibus spending bill Dec. 21, a day after congressional leaders announced they had reached an agreement on a companion coronavirus relief package. The omnibus spending bill, a compromise between House and Senate bills, had been completed days earlier but its release was delayed until a deal was struck on the relief package.
The bill provides $23.271 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2021, $642 million more than what it received in 2020 but nearly $2 billion less than the agency’s request of $25.246 billion. A House spending bill passed in July kept NASA funded at 2020 levels, while a Senate bill introduced in November offered $23.495 billion.
The bill, as expected, funds several NASA science missions slated for cancellation in the administration’s original request. That includes the PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder Earth science missions, the Roman Space Telescope, and Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The bill also funds NASA’s education programs, which the administration once again sought to zero out.
Key elements of NASA’s exploration programs, including the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and Exploration Ground Systems all received funding at or above the administration’s request. However, the bill provides $850 million for the Human Landing System (HLS) program, about one-quarter the administration’s request of $3.3 billion. The Senate bill offered $1 billion for HLS while the House version had about $600 million.
NASA officials, including Administrator Jim Bridenstine, previously warned that they needed full funding of HLS in order to keep a human return to the moon on schedule for 2024. “The budget request gave us what we needed to achieve a 2024 moon landing, and as of right now, this agency is meeting all of its milestones,” Bridenstine said at a Dec. 9 meeting of the National Space Council. “Ultimately, if we don’t get the $3.3 billion, it gets more and more difficult.”
The bill also sharply cuts the request for NASA’s commercial low Earth orbit development program, which is intended to support development of commercial successors for the International Space Station. NASA sought $150 million for commercial LEO development in 2021 but received only $17 million in the bill. NASA suffered a similar shortfall in 2020, when it received just $15 million of its requested $150 million.
The bill includes $1.1 billion for NASA’s space technology programs, the same as 2020 and far short of the original request of nearly $1.6 billion. The report specifies funding for both the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) 1 mission and nuclear thermal propulsion that is above the agency’s request. Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, warned in September that reduced overall funding and directed increases to specific programs “greatly restricts our buying power for the other things we want to do.”
The bill includes several policy provisions related to various programs. It instructs NASA to launch the Europa Clipper on the SLS, but only if “the SLS is available and if torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.” That is an apparent reference to concerns that emerged in August about “potential hardware compatibility issues” between the spacecraft and SLS.
If NASA determines an SLS is not suitable for Europa Clipper, NASA can then conduct a “full and open competition” for a commercial alternative. The bill specifically states that NASA would not be limited to the vehicles currently on its NASA Launch Services 2 contract vehicle for that competition.
The bill includes $156.4 million for NASA’s planetary defense programs. It instructs NASA to “request adequate resources” for both the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, scheduled for launch in mid-2021, and the Near Earth Object Surveillance Mission (NEOSM), with the latter being launched in 2025. NASA stated earlier this month it delayed a review of NEOSM because of budget uncertainty for the project.
Roman Space Telescope to search for other Earths by surveying space dust
With the James Webb Space Telescope continuing its commissioning phase, NASA is already looking ahead to its next major space observatory, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Currently scheduled to launch in 2027, Roman will observe the universe to answer crucial questions needed for the complete understanding of our universe, especially in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics.
According to a new study published by a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, Roman will be able to use one of its onboard instruments to measure a specific kind of space dust littered around the habitable zones of the planetary system, thereby helping astronomers know more about habitable planets beyond the solar system.
“If we don’t find much of this dust around a particular star, that means future missions will be able to see potential planets relatively easily,” said Ewan Douglas, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the lead author of a paper describing the results. “But if we do find this kind of dust, we can study it and learn all kinds of interesting things about its sources, like comets and asteroids in these systems, and the influence of unseen planets on its brightness and distribution. It’s a win-win for science!”
So how can the telescope detect such fine dust from millions of kilometers away? For this, we need to know more about the zodiacal dust, the small rocky grains largely left behind by colliding asteroids and crumbling comets. In our solar system, it can be found in areas spanning from near the Sun to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. When observed, it is the brightest thing in the solar system, besides the sun itself.
Exozodiacal dust — zodiacal dust outside the solar system — creates a haze and obscures the view of the planets as it scatters the light from the host star. Being near the star, this dust is very difficult to observe.
“No one knows much about exozodiacal dust because it’s so close to its host star that it’s usually lost in the glare, making it notoriously difficult to observe,” said Bertrand Mennesson, Roman’s deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and a co-author of the paper. “We’re not sure what Roman will find in these other planetary systems, but we’re excited to finally have an observatory that’s equipped to explore this aspect of their habitable zones.”
To counter the glare from the star, Roman will be able to use its Coronagraph Instrument to block out the host star’s light, enabling sensitive measurements to be made of the light reflected by the system’s dust. Ground-based telescopes struggle with such observations because they must look through the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The Roman Coronagraph is equipped with special sensors and deformable mirrors that will actively measure and subtract starlight in real-time,” said John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and a co-author of the paper. “This will help provide a very high level of contrast, a hundred times better than Hubble’s passive coronagraph offers, which we need to spot warm dust that orbits close to the host star.”
Called Hubble’s wide-eyed cousin, Roman’s instruments can image a swath of sky 100 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope; meaning a single Roman image will provide coverage equivalent to 100 pictures from Hubble. Once deployed and commissioned, the first five years of Roman’s observations will image over 50 times as much sky as Hubble covered in its first 30 years.
Utilizing one of two telescopes donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 2012 has drastically affected the program, giving NASA access to a larger mirror than had originally been planned for a fraction of a cost, despite the work needed to convert it for use in astronomical observations instead of the equipment’s original Earth-imaging mission.
In an interview with NASASpaceflight, Julie McEnery, Project Scientist for Roman Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained: “Having the opportunity to transition to a much larger primary mirror than we’d originally planned without having a much larger mission cost changed the nature of what we could do with the mission. And once you make the transition to having the much larger mirror, that opened up a huge range of exciting things that we could do with the observatory that might not have been on top of people’s mind with the original plans.”
“It also meant that the capability for everything that you could think of was greatly enhanced. We now have a performance that is equivalent to Hubble’s but over a much larger field of view. Suddenly we now had a much larger number of scientists really excited about what the observatory could do. But the observatory is not able to magically take a much larger number of observations. So we had to figure out how we were going to use the mission to meet more needs. But that’s a lovely problem to have!”
Although the donation from NRO helped, the telescope still needed additional work to prepare it for its role in the Roman Telescope. The 2.4-meter (7.9-foot) primary mirror was re-shaped and re-surfaced by L3Harris Technologies under a NASA contract.
Telescope mirrors are coated with different materials depending on the wavelengths of light they are designed to sense. Hubble was designed to see in the infrared, ultraviolet, and optical, so its mirror was coated in layers of aluminum and magnesium fluoride. The James Webb Space Telescope’s mirror is coated with gold because of its higher reflectivity towards longer infrared wavelengths.
The Roman Space Telescope’s mirror is coated with an extraordinarily thin layer of silver, used because of its ability to reflect light in the infrared to the visible light spectrum. This coating is less than 400 nanometers thick, 200 times thinner than a human hair. Like all advanced telescope mirrors, it is polished meticulously. The average bump on the mirror’s surface is only 1.2 nanometers high, which is twice as smooth as mission operations require.
This mirror is the heart of the telescope as it collects all the light from the distant astronomical bodies and directs it towards the spacecraft’s instruments. Made of ultra-low expansion glass, it is significantly lighter than Hubble despite being the same size.
Once the primary mirror collects the ancient light, it will be sent to the telescope’s two onboard instruments: the Wide Field Instrument — which is the primary instrument of the telescope — and the Coronagraph Instrument.
The Wide-Field Instrument (WFI) is a 300-megapixel camera, capable of detecting faint infrared light and capturing a sky bigger than the size of the full moon. It consists of 18 detectors that convert the distant light from the stars to electrical signals, which are further decoded into high-resolution images of large patches of the sky. Right now, the teams are in the process of installing those detectors.
“We have got to be in one of the most exciting parts of the mission right now. We have just started putting, so we’ve got 18, you know, when you see the picture of Roman, it’s kind of got that little Space Invader thing going on,” said Julie McEnery.
“And that’s the focal plane of the Wide-Field Instrument. That picture has 18, there’s 18 individual detectors. We’ve started to put the first six detectors, that’s the ones in the middle row, the flight detectors, into the flight plate. So we’re actually building the real thing. And we’ve already tested all of those flight detectors. We’ve been characterizing their performance. They’re working great. They don’t just meet the specifications, they all exceed them. Everything is really starting to come together.”
The second instrument in the Coronagraph. Roman will be the first mission to use a coronagraph designed specifically to study exoplanets, in space. It will demonstrate technology that will allow astronomers to image directly planets in orbit around other stars by greatly reducing the glare from the host star. Roman’s will be the most powerful coronagraph ever flown, capable of observing planets almost a billion times fainter than their stars. Known as “Starglasses”, it works using a system of masks, prisms, detectors, and self-flexing mirrors to block out glare from distant stars.
“It’s kind of awesome. I think of it as like magic with physics. Because you’re using destructive interference of light to create the dark hole. But then as you create the dark hole, the rest of the light is going somewhere, and you use that to inform how the deformable mirror needs to respond to correct for deviations of the wave front as it’s coming in.”
“It’s a difficult thing to do. It’s been difficult to make the deformable mirrors work the way we want them to.”
The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, previously known as Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST, has had a rocky history, with delays and cost growth affecting the project. It was first introduced in the report of the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, a 10-year plan created by the US National Academies to outline scientific missions and goals related to astronomy.
WFIRST was identified as a top-rank priority for a large space mission, with NASA’s Then-Administrator Charles Bolden directing the Science Mission Directorate to continue pre-formulation activities by beginning the development of the telescope’s design. This was carried out by the Astrophysics-Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) science definition team. By 2014, the team had announced the two instruments which will be onboard the telescope.
By December 2015, NASA had announced the selection of its Formulation Science Investigation Teams for the telescope. These worked with NASA and Project Teams on science requirements, mission design, and scientific performance predictions for the mission. By October 2017, NASA received its findings from the team and awarded its first contract to Ball Aerospace for the Wide Field Instrument.
On August 28, 2019, Roman Telescope successfully passed its preliminary design review, meaning that the project had met the performance, schedule, and budget requirements needed for the finalization of its design as it moved to the next stage of the development. By September 29, 2021, the Roman Space Telescope had passed its critical design review, signaling the end of all design work and the beginning of the assembly phase.
While the telescope progressed further on the technical front, it experienced resistance from the previous US administration. Several attempts were made to terminate this project, citing the delays and cost growth of the James Webb Space Telescope. Lawmakers were hesitant to proceed with another multi-billion dollar space telescope until Webb had been launched and deployed successfully. Despite the administration’s recommendations, Congress continued to fund the Roman Space Telescope’s development and the project promises much for astronomers once the observatory reaches orbit later this decade.
NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for Roman Space Telescope
NASA has awarded a NASA Launch Services (NLS) II contract to Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, to provide launch service for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope mission. The Roman Space Telescope is the top-priority large space mission recommended by the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey.
NLS II is an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract. The total cost for NASA to launch the Roman telescope is approximately $255 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs. The telescope’s mission currently is targeted to launch in October 2026, as specified in the contract, on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The telescope’s science program will include dedicated investigations to tackle outstanding questions in cosmology, including the effects of dark energy and dark matter, and exoplanet exploration. Roman also includes a substantial general investigator program to enable further studies of astrophysical phenomena to advance other science goals.
The telescope was previously known as the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), but it was later renamed in honor of Dr. Nancy Grace Roman for her extraordinary work at NASA, which paved the way for large space telescopes.
NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy is responsible for launch vehicle program management of the SpaceX launch service. The Roman Space Telescope project is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Roman Space Telescope top challenge for new NASA astrophysics director
WASHINGTON — The person tapped to be the next head of NASA’s astrophysics division says his top priority is to keep the agency’s next large space telescope on schedule and within its budget.
NASA announced July 14 that Mark Clampin would take over as director of NASA’s astrophysics division, effective Aug. 15. He succeeds Paul Hertz, who announced last year his intent to step down from the position after a decade. Hertz will remain at the agency as a senior adviser to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.
Clampin is currently director of the science and exploration directorate at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He previously led the center’s astrophysics division and also worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb Space Telescope and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite missions.
During a meeting of the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee July 21, Clampin said a key priority for him is to keep the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope on track for a launch as soon as October 2026. The 2.4-meter telescope is the next large, or flagship, astrophysics mission after JWST.
“For me, the number one challenge is making sure that we keep the Roman Space Telescope on track,” he said, including “staying ahead of the fires” or problems that crop up during its development.
Hertz previously said that keeping Roman on cost and schedule was critical to winning support for future space telescopes, such as the line of missions proposed by the Astro2020 decadal survey last year. Clampin offered a similar view.
“People are watching how we do on Roman as an example of whether we can do a good job in the future,” he said. “The Roman science is important and it’s also important that we demonstrate that we can stay on track on this telescope as we put it together. That would be my highest priority.”
NASA is starting efforts to plan for the next flagship mission after Roman, currently envisioned as a large infrared, optical and ultraviolet space telescope designated IROUV. A new effort, the Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program or GOMAP, is getting underway to define science goals and advance key technologies need for the mission.
Clampin said he was getting a briefing soon on GOMAP. “One of the important lessons I want to bring to this endeavor is to make sure that we really focus on the science goals and don’t let the science scope of this mission expand too much,” he said. “One of my lessons learned from Webb is that ends up coming at the expense of a lot of additional costs.”
A near-term challenge he faces is budget pressures on NASA’s portfolio of astrophysics missions. A spending bill approved by House appropriators last month would provide $1.525 billion for astrophysics in fiscal year 2023, slightly less than the request. With full funding allocated to several major programs, including Roman, Hubble and JWST, and an increase in closeout funding for the SOFIA airborne observatory, other parts of astrophysics are facing a $51 million cut should those funding levels stand in the final version of the bill, Hertz told the committee July 20.
Clampin acknowledged concerns about the budget but said that public interest in the field, stimulated by the first science images from JWST released earlier in the month, can help win support for other astrophysics programs.
“One of the great strengths we have is that what we do in astrophysics really engages with the general public, with our stakeholders on the Hill. Everybody gets excited,” he said. He recalled a recent meeting at Capitol Hill with congressional officials about JWST. “They are all really excited about James Webb. You talk to them about the science, they’re jazzed by that. And then the next question is, ‘What are you doing next? What’s the next big technical challenge for the nation in the astrophysics?’”
NASA’s Roman Mission Completes Key Optical Components
Engineers at Ball Aerospace, one of the industrial partners for NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, have installed and aligned the element wheel assembly (pictured above) into the telescope’s Wide Field Instrument. The assembly contains eight science filters, two dispersive elements (a grism and prism) and a “blank” element (used for internal calibration) that will help scientists solve some of the most profound mysteries in astrophysics when Roman launches by May 2027.
After light is reflected and focused by Roman’s primary and secondary mirrors, it will pass through the element wheel. The focused and filtered light will then reach a large detector array, where an image is created. Depending on what the researchers are looking for, the science filters will allow astronomers to select specific wavelengths of light for their observations. The grism and prism are tools for spectroscopy, designed to spread out the light from cosmic objects into different colors. These rainbow-like measurements, called spectra, contain unique signatures about the sources that offer clues about their nature. For example, astronomers will be able to measure how thousands of entire galaxies are moving through space, which will help them see how fast the universe has expanded at different points in time. Doing so can help pin down the nature of dark energy – the mysterious cosmic pressure that’s speeding up the universe’s expansion.
The grism and prism were fabricated and tested by Optimax, Jenoptik, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to ensure they meet Roman’s stringent requirements. The team simulated space-like conditions in a cryo-vacuum vessel, which lowered the temperature to about minus 190 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 123 degrees Celsius). Since most materials expand when heated and compress when cooled, engineers had to confirm that the optics will work as planned at Roman’s super-cold operating temperature. Both the grism and prism passed, with test images showing minimal distortion. Astronomers will use these components to explore some of the biggest mysteries in the universe.