NASA’s new telescope could find as many as 1,400 new planets outside our solar system, enabling humans to find the largest, deepest and clearest picture of the universe as well as the existence of extra-terrestrial life, suggests a new study.
With a budget of around $3.2 billion, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission is scheduled for launch in the mid-2020s.
With 300-megapixel Wide Field Instrument, it will be able to map the Milky Way and other galaxies 100 times faster than the famous Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.
The telescope will scan a small piece of the universe – about two square degrees – at a resolution higher than any similar mission in the past.
“Although it’s a small fraction of the sky, it’s huge compared to what other space telescopes can do,” said lead author Matthew Penny, postdoctoral researcher in The Ohio State University in the US.
“It’s WFIRST’s unique combination – both a wide field of view and a high resolution – that make it so powerful for micro-lensing planet searches,” Penny added.
To find new planets, WFIRST will use gravitational microlensing, a technique that relies on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light coming from stars that pass behind them from the telescope’s viewpoint.
This microlensing effect allows a telescope to find planets orbiting stars thousands of light-years away from Earth — much farther than other planet-detecting techniques, said the study, published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement.
WFIRST will spend long stretches of time continuously monitoring 100 million stars at the centre of the galaxy, said Penny, adding that about 100 of those not yet discovered planets could have the same or lower mass as Earth, NASA said.