Nasa should ‘focus energy on new £1bn telescope to find alien planets’
A billion pound space telescope that can see dark matter and can identify Earth-like planets should be Nasa’s priority over the next decade, a panel of influential scientists said.
By Andrew Hough
The $1.6 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) should be the top priority for space agency astronomers and astrophysicists to develop, the independent National Research Council report concluded.
The two year-study, titled The Astro2010 Decadal Survey “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics”, said the 5-foot (1.5-metre) field-of-view device, due to launch in 2020, was one of the most exciting generation of telescopes.
Scientists said the telescope, which would orbit a “stable gravitational point” just above the Earth, would target the early universe, search for close habitable planets and “test the boundaries of fundamental physics”.
It would also answer “fundamental questions” about the nature of dark energy and search for “Exoplanets” or planets outside the Solar System.
The 23-person expert panel’s report recommendations are used to decide which astronomy and astrophysics projects Nasa, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) should fund over the next decade.
Experts said Nasa follows the guidance to formulate its mission portfolio and top-ranked recommendations are almost always implemented in some form.
The space community views the report as an influential barometer for research that sets a roadmap for scientific priorities that will “set the nation firmly on the path to answering profound questions about the cosmos”.
“What we’ve seen over the last decade and can confidently expect for the next is unscripted discovery,” said Roger Blandford, of Stanford University in California, who led the study.
“Powerful new ways to observe the universe and bold ideas to understand it have created scientific opportunities without precedent.
“The program of research that we recommend will optimise the science return for future ground-based projects and space missions in a time of constrained budgets and limited resources.”
The NRC, part of the National Academy of Sciences, had asked leading astronomers and physicists to review 100 projects to determine which missions offered the best science value. They also reviewed risks, costs and technical readiness.
The found WFIRST’s large-scale imaging capability would “complement” Nasa’s flagship project from 2014, the smaller field-of-view infrared observations from the $5-billion James Webb Space Telescope.
The New Scientist reported that the telescope is based on the design for a joint Nasa /US Department of Energy project called the Joint Dark Energy Mission. It was first conceived in 2003, the mission was set to start in 2009 but has been held up by unrealistic cost estimates and tight budgets.
Experts said the decision to prioritise WFIRST would have a “significant impact” on a similar project, called Euclid, being developed by the European Space Agency.
A Nasa spokesman said it would study the report’s recommendations.