NASA’s New Telescope Could Find 1,000 More Planets

By Dan Anderson ● February 27, 2019

NASA has a new telescope that will give humans the deepest and clearest picture of the universe ever since the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA’s new telescope will be able to map the Milky Way and other galaxies that are 100 times faster than the Hubble Space Telescope.

And the new telescope could find as many as 1,4000 new planets outside of the Earth’s solar system. Researchers involved in this project said that this would also provide a more accurate and more focused search for extraterrestrial life.

Astronomers at The Ohio State University put together a study that provides the most detailed estimates to date of the potential reach of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope mission (known as WFIRST). And Ohio State played a role in the project’s inception to designing the research programs that the telescope will execute.

The study was designed by NASA and astronomers throughout the country in order to find new planets and research dark energy, which is the mysterious force pervading otherwise empty space and hold the answers to understanding how the universe expands. Details about the study were published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series on February 25.

“We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are,” said Matthew Penny — who is the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio State Department of Astronomy — in a statement. “To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything.”

Penny pointed out that the planets WFIRST is likely to find will be further from their stars than most planets found to date. And this mission will build on the work of Kepler, which is a deep-space telescope that found over 2,600 planets outside our solar system. The Kepler mission ended on October 30, 2018.

Kepler started the search by looking for planets that orbit their stars closer than the Earth is to the sun. And WFIRST will complete it by finding planets that have larger orbits. In order to find new planets, WFIRST will use gravitational microlensing — which is a technique that relies on the gravity on stars and planets to bend and magnify the light from stars that pass behind them from the telescope viewpoint.

And this microlensing effect — which is linked to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity — allows a telescope to find planets orbiting stars thousands of light-years away from Earth and is much farther than other planet-detecting techniques. However, microlensing works only when the gravity of a planet or star bends the light from another star and the effect from any given planet or star is only visible for a few hours once every few million years.

WFIRST is also going to spend long stretches of time continuously monitoring 100 million stars at the center of the galaxy. And Penny’s study predicted that about 100 of the not-yet-discovered planets could have a mass that is the same or lower than Earth.

With a budget of about $3.2 billion, the WFIRST mission will scan a small piece of the universe (about 2 square degrees at a resolution higher than any similar mission in the past). This resolution will allow WFIRST to see more stars and planets than any previous organized search.

So far, scientists have discovered nearly 700 solar systems so far and about 4,000 planets. Even though humans searched galaxies near and far for signs of life, the search mostly found planets that are closer to their stars than Earth is to the sun

This mission is currently in the planning stages. And NASA announced its plans to move forward with WFIRST in February 2016 followed by the initial planning in May 2018.