NASA's next-generation space telescope could push the hunt for exoplanets at warp speed. According to the space agency, the Roman Space Telescope has the ability to gather data up to 500 times faster than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
Formerly known as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope this month passed an important ground-system design review, NASA announced. Roman uses a technology that was originally intended for spying missions on Earth but instead will utilize this ability to look for exoplanets across the galaxy, as well as other phenomena in space.
Roman will be optimized in order to enhance its microlensing abilities, a type of planetary survey that happens when mass warps the fabric of space-time. This kind of lensing can even be used to observe black holes or giant galaxies when used at its most extreme. On a smaller scale, however, microlensing creates enough "warping" in planets for planet-hunting.
Microlensing in this context happens when a star closely aligns with a second star from the Earth's vantage point. The star closest to our planet focuses and magnifies the light from the star that is further away, which should enable astronomers to observe it in a little more detail. Planets orbiting the foreground star can even amplify the star's light, causing a surge in brightness.
Along with microlensing capabilities, Roman comes with a wide field of view about 100 times larger than Hubble's, hence it is considered "Hubble's mother." Roman, according to NASA, should collect more data than any of its other astrophysics missions.
With these incredible capabilities, Roman will optimize NASA's other planet-hunting missions, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the past Kepler mission, which was responsible for the discovery of thousands of exoplanets. And while Hubble was not intended for planet-hunting purposes since the discoveries were just starting when it launched, the observatory has contributed a lot to exoplanet science as well. Ground observatories have also contributed to the search for exoplanets, creating a larger community of exoplanet science that Roman will contribute to after its launch.
"With such a large number of stars and frequent observations, Roman's microlensing survey will see thousands of planetary events," task lead for the Roman Science Support Center Rachel Akeson said in a NASA statement. "Each one will have a unique signature, which we can use to determine the planet's mass and distance from its star."