NASA Begins WFIRST Project

NASA is building a new flagship telescope known as the Wide-Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope. The United States government has already approved US$90 million for the project, which will begin construction this year.

In recognition of government funding, NASA has hastened developments of a powerful telescope that could answer the most fundamental questions about nearby exoplanets and the universe. Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics division director, announced during the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting that the Wide-Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope, also known as the WFIRST project, will formally begin construction this year rather than 2017. Hertz made the announcement after the United States Congress increased the project's funding for fiscal year 2016 to US$90 million. This was above President Barack Obama's budget request for US$16 million.

The telescope will have a 2.4-meter mirror that is said to be designed to measure light from nearly 2,600 exoplanets and 400 million galaxies during its primary mission of six years. This project emerged as NASA's top priority after the last decadal survey of astronomers in 2010 that says such a mission would be able to answer important questions.

Over time, the WFIRST project has evolved. It is now being designed to take advantage of a spy satellite donated in 2012 by the National Reconnaissance Office to NASA, and the mission could take about a decade to launch. The modified spy telescope will likely be carrying two instruments during its six-year voyage in space and will be made up of a mirror about the same size as the Hubble telescope. The wide-field instrument will have a field view 100 times greater than Hubble, which enables it to make precise measurements of the location and distance of other galaxies in a short amount of time. In addition, astronomers could observe how the dark energy over time has changed.

During the WFIRST project formulation phase, NASA will be assessing technological needs to complete the goals of the mission. The administration will also be in charge of budget developments, construction timeline, testing and launch. However, Hertz made a warning to NASA's other divisions that budget for other space projects may be pinched for the time being as the US Congress directs budget allocations to the WFIRST project and finalization of a certain James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch two years from now.

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