Green light for WFIRST

NASA has green light for developing project of new space telescope based on NRO spy satellite.

WFIRST acronym stands for Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope and is NASA program for wide-field sky observation devoted especially to research on dark energy and exoplanets. Developed since 2010 space, telescope is designed as medium spacecraft with weight around 6000 kg, powered by solar arrays which will give at least 2500 w. It will be placed on Sun-Earth L2 orbit at 188,420 km x 806,756 km. During mission lasting for 6 years it will utilize its 2.4 m diameter telescope for space observation in visible light and near infrared. Thanks to the generosity of US Congress, WFIRST budget for 2016 was extended from $14 million up to $90 million. Whole project changed status to formulation phase. According to statement of John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate announced 17 February 2016:

"WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has... This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter."

It seems that it is possible to launch WFIRST telescope on atop of Delta Heavy or Falcon Heavy around 2025. Whole budget for WFIRST is expected to exceed $2 billion. Whole venture became possible after National Reconnaissance Office decided to donate two telescopes with necessary equipment to NASA in 2012. These telescopes were part of observation satellites and were built in the early 2000s, when NRO was developing Future Imagery Architecture program. After partial failure of FIA (only its radar observation satellites were developed successfully), parts which were designated to be installed in optical observation satellites became useless without appropriate spacecrafts. NRO telescopes are comparable to Hubble telescope but have two advantages which are not characterizing Hubble. First of all, with same diameter, NRO telescopes are offering better angle of view. With same parameters of picture, new telescopes will be able to observe 100 times wider than Hubble. Second advantage is possibility of better accuracy thanks to adjustable secondary mirror. Unfortunately with advantages there are some problems to solve. NRO telescopes are not able to operate in infrared without additional cooling system which was not part of their design. NASA to meet demands of the mission should modify telescopes with additional cooling system. Telescopes are also larger than WFIRST first projects, so cost of the launch will be also higher due the necessity of utilizing larger launch vehicle. Each of telescope costs probably at least $250 million, so this should be real deal for NASA. Not necessary, if it will be taken under consideration higher cost of launch and even additional $300 million for further necessary modifications (according some specialists like David N. Spergel, theoretical astrophysicist from Princeton) and installing coronagraph in each telescope. But still WFIRST remains one of few astrophysical NASA projects, in spite of launching James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

On picture above - Hubble telescope on duty.