WFIRST

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

WFIRST is a NASA observatory designed to perform Wide Field imaging and surveys of the near infrared (NIR) sky. The current design of the mission makes use of an existing 2.4m telescope, which is the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope. WFIRST is the top-ranked large space mission in the New Worlds, New Horizon Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The Wide Field Instrument will provide a field of view of the sky that is 100 times larger than images provided by HST. The coronagraph will enable astronomers to detect and measure properties of planets in other solar systems.

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Produced Videos

Full-form videos with narration and interviews
  • Simulated Image Demonstrates the Power of NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope
    2020.01.05
    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, WFIRST, will capture the equivalent of 100 high-resolution Hubble images in a single shot, imaging large areas of the sky 1,000 times faster than Hubble. In several months, WFIRST could survey as much of the sky in near-infrared light—in just as much detail—as Hubble has over its entire three decades. Although WFIRST has not yet opened its wide, keen eyes on the universe, astronomers are already running simulations to demonstrate what it will be able to see and plan their observations. This simulated image of a portion of our neighboring galaxy Andromeda (M31) provides a preview of the vast expanse and fine detail that can be covered with just a single pointing of WFIRST. Using information gleaned from hundreds of Hubble observations, the simulated image covers a swath roughly 34,000 light-years across, showcasing the red and infrared light of more than 50 million individual stars detectable with WFIRST. While it may appear to be a somewhat haphazard arrangement of 18 separate images, the simulation actually represents a single shot. Eighteen square detectors, 16-megapixels each, make up WFIRST’s Wide Field Instrument (WFI) and give the telescope its unique window into space. With each pointing, WFIRST will cover an area roughly 1⅓ times that of the full Moon. By comparison, each individual infrared Hubble image covers an area less than 1% of the full Moon. WFIRST is designed to collect the big data needed to tackle essential questions across a wide range of topics, including dark energy, exoplanets, and general astrophysics spanning from our solar system to the most distant galaxies in the observable universe. Over its 5-year planned lifetime, WFIRST is expected to amass more than 20 petabytes of information on thousands of planets, billions of stars, millions of galaxies, and the fundamental forces that govern the cosmos. For astronomers like Ben Williams of the University of Washington in Seattle, who generated the simulated data set for this image, WFIRST will provide a valuable opportunity to understand large nearby objects like Andromeda, which are otherwise extremely time-consuming to image because they are so big on the sky. WFIRST could survey Andromeda nearly 1,500 times faster than Hubble, building a panorama of the main disk of the galaxy in just a few hours.
  • WFIRST's Coronagraph Instrument
    2019.09.24
    When a new NASA space telescope opens its eyes in the mid 2020s, it will peer at the universe through some of the most sophisticated sunglasses ever designed. This multi-layered technology, the coronagraph instrument, might more rightly be called “starglasses”: a system of masks, prisms, detectors and even self-flexing mirrors built to block out the glare from distant stars — and reveal the planets in orbit around them. Normally, that glare is overwhelming, blotting out any chance of seeing orbiting planets. The star’s photons — particles of light — swamp those from the planet when they hit the telescope. WFIRST’s coronagraph just completed a major milestone: a preliminary design review by NASA. The instrument has met all design, schedule and budget requirements, and can now proceed to the next phase, building hardware for flight. The WFIRST mission’s coronagraph is meant to demonstrate the power of increasingly advanced technology. As it captures light directly from large, gaseous exoplanets, and from disks of dust and gas surrounding other stars, it will point the way to the future: single pixel “images” of rocky planets the size of Earth. Then the light can be spread into a rainbow spectrum, revealing which gases are present in the planet’s atmosphere — perhaps oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, and maybe even signs of life. The two flexible mirrors inside the coronagraph are key components. As light that has traveled tens of light-years from an exoplanet enters the telescope, thousands of actuators move like pistons, changing the shape of the mirrors in real time. The flexing of these “deformable mirrors” compensates for tiny flaws and changes in the telescope’s optics. Changes on the mirrors’ surfaces are so precise they can compensate for errors smaller than the width of a strand of DNA. These mirrors, in tandem with high-tech “masks,” another major advance, squelch the star’s diffraction as well – the bending of light waves around the edges of light-blocking elements inside the coronagraph. The result: blinding starlight is sharply dimmed, and faintly glowing, previously hidden planets appear. The star-dimming technology also could bring the clearest-ever images of distant star systems’ formative years — when they are still swaddled in disks of dust and gas as infant planets take shape inside. The instrument’s deformable mirrors and other advanced technology — known as “active wavefront control” — should mean a leap of 100 to 1,000 times the capability of previous coronagraphs.
  • Unraveling the Mysteries of Dark Energy with NASA's WFIRST
    2019.09.13
    Scientists have discovered that a mysterious pressure dubbed “dark energy” makes up about 68% of the total energy content of the cosmos, but so far we don’t know much more about it. Exploring the nature of dark energy is one of the primary reasons NASA is building the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a space telescope whose measurements will help illuminate the dark energy puzzle. With a better understanding of dark energy, we will have a better sense of the past and future evolution of the universe. Astronomers have measured the rate of of the universe's expansion by using ground-based telescopes to study relatively nearby supernova explosions. The mystery escalated in 1998 when Hubble Space Telescope observations of more distant supernovae helped show that the universe actually expanded more slowly in the past than it does today. The expansion of the universe is not slowing down due to gravity, as everyone thought. It’s speeding up. While we still don’t know what exactly is causing the acceleration, it has been given a name — dark energy. This mysterious pressure remained undiscovered for so long because it is so weak that gravity overpowers it on the scale of humans, planets and even the galaxy. It is only on an intergalactic scale that dark energy becomes noticeable, acting like a sort of weak opposition to gravity. What exactly is dark energy? More is unknown than known, but theorists are chasing down a couple of possible explanations. Cosmic acceleration could be caused by a new energy component, which would require some adjustments to Einstein’s theory of gravity — perhaps the cosmological constant, which Einstein called his biggest blunder, is real after all. Alternatively, Einstein’s theory of gravity may break down on cosmological scales. If this is the case, the theory will need to be replaced with a new one that incorporates the cosmic acceleration we have observed. Theorists still don’t know what the correct explanation is, but WFIRST will help us find out. Discovering how dark energy has affected the universe’s expansion in the past will shed some light on how it will influence the expansion in the future. If it continues to accelerate the universe’s expansion, we may be destined to experience a “Big Rip.” In this scenario, dark energy would eventually become dominant over the fundamental forces, causing everything that is currently bound together — galaxies, planets, people — to break apart. Exploring dark energy will allow us to investigate, and possibly even foresee, the universe’s fate.
  • Take a Spin With NASA's WFIRST Spacecraft
    2019.08.28
    On schedule to launch in the mid-2020s, NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission will help uncover some of the biggest mysteries in the cosmos. The state-of-the-art telescope on the WFIRST spacecraft will play a significant role in this, providing the largest picture of the universe ever seen with the same depth and precision as the Hubble Space Telescope. The telescope for WFIRST has successfully passed its preliminary design review, a major milestone for the mission. This means the telescope has met the performance, schedule, and budget requirements to advance to the next stage of development, where the team will finalize its design. WFIRST is a high-precision survey mission that will advance our understanding of fundamental physics. WFIRST is similar to other space telescopes, like Spitzer and the James Webb Space Telescope, in that it will detect infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light, which presents challenges for observatories on the ground. WFIRST has the advantage of flying in space, above the atmosphere. The WFIRST telescope will collect and focus light using a primary mirror that is 2.4 meters in diameter. While it’s the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope’s main mirror, it is only one-fourth the weight, showcasing an impressive improvement in telescope technology. The mirror gathers light and sends it on to a pair of science instruments. The spacecraft’s giant camera, the Wide Field Instrument (WFI), will enable astronomers to map the presence of mysterious dark matter, which is known only through its gravitational effects on normal matter. The WFI will also help scientists investigate the equally mysterious "dark energy," which causes the universe's expansion to accelerate. Whatever its nature, dark energy may hold the key to understanding the fate of the cosmos. In addition, the WFI will survey our own galaxy to further our understanding of what planets orbit other stars, using the telescope’s ability to sense both smaller planets and more distant planets than any survey before (planets orbiting stars beyond our Sun are called "exoplanets"). This survey will help determine whether our solar system is common, unusual, or nearly unique in the galaxy. The WFI will have the same resolution as Hubble, yet has a field of view that is 100 times greater, combining excellent image quality with the power to conduct large surveys that would take Hubble hundreds of years to complete. WFIRST’s Coronagraph Instrument (CGI) will directly image exoplanets by blocking out the light of their host stars. To date, astronomers have directly imaged only a small fraction of exoplanets, so WFIRST’s advanced techniques will expand our inventory and enable us to learn more about them. Results from the CGI will provide the first opportunity to observe and characterize exoplanets similar to those in our solar system, located between three and 10 times Earth’s distance from the Sun, or from about midway to Jupiter to about the distance of Saturn in our solar system. Studying the physical properties of exoplanets that are more similar to Earth will take us a step closer to discovering habitable planets.
  • WFIRST's Wide Field Instrument
    2019.06.26
    In order to know how the universe will end, we must know what has happened to it so far. This is just one mystery NASA's forthcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission will tackle as it explores the distant cosmos. The spacecraft's giant camera, the Wide Field Instrument (WFI), will be fundamental to this exploration. The WFI has just passed its preliminary design review, an important milestone for the mission. It means the WFI successfully met the design, schedule and budget requirements to advance to the next phase of development, where the team will begin detailed design and fabrication of the flight hardware. WFIRST is a next-generation space telescope that will survey the infrared universe from beyond the orbit of the Moon. Its two instruments are a technology demonstration called a coronagraph, and the WFI. The WFI features the same angular resolution as Hubble but with 100 times the field of view. Data it gathers will enable scientists to discover new and uniquely detailed information about planetary systems around other stars. The WFI will also map how matter is structured and distributed throughout the cosmos, which should ultimately allow scientists to discover the fate of the universe. The WFI is designed to detect faint infrared light from across the universe. Infrared light is observed at wavelengths longer than the human eye can detect. The expansion of the universe stretches light emitted by distant galaxies, causing visible or ultraviolet light to appear as infrared by the time it reaches us. Such distant galaxies are difficult to observe from the ground because Earth’s atmosphere blocks some infrared wavelengths, and the upper atmosphere glows brightly enough to overwhelm light from these distant galaxies. By going into space and using a Hubble-size telescope, the WFI will be sensitive enough to detect infrared light from farther than any previous telescope. This will help scientists capture a new view of the universe that could help solve some of its biggest mysteries, one of which is how the universe became the way it is now. The WFI will allow scientists to peer very far back in time. Seeing the universe in its early stages will help scientists unravel how it expanded throughout its history. This will illuminate how the cosmos developed to its present condition, enabling scientists to predict how it will continue to evolve. With its large field of view, the WFI will provide a wealth of information in each image it takes. This will dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to gather data, allowing scientists to conduct research that would otherwise be impractical. With the successful completion of the WFI’s preliminary design review, the WFIRST mission is on target for its planned launch in the mid-2020s. Scientists will soon be able to explore some of the biggest mysteries in the cosmos thanks to the WFI’s wide field of view and precision optics.
  • WFIRST: Uncovering the Mysteries of the Universe
    2014.05.30
    The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is an upcoming space telescope designed to perform wide-field imaging and spectroscopy of the infrared sky. One of WFIRST’s objectives will be looking for clues about dark energy—the mysterious force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Another objective of the mission will be finding and studying exoplanets. WFIRST uses the same 2.4 meter telescope size as Hubble, but with 18 cutting-edge fourth-generation image sensors compared to Hubble's single first-generation sensor. As a result, each WFIRST image will cover over 200 times as much as a Hubble Wide Field Camera 3/IR image and be 300 megapixels in size. Hubble images reveal thousands of galaxies; a single WFIRST image will uncover millions. To help uncover the mystery of dark energy, WFIRST will make incredibly precise measurements of the universe. These measurements, like the distance and position of galaxies, can be compared to other measurements—such as the cosmic microwave background from the WMAP mission—to determine how dark energy has changed over time. WFIRST can also measure the slight distortions in light from distant galaxies as it passes more nearby mass concentrations. These data will build a three dimensional picture of how mass is distributed throughout the universe, and provide independent confirmation of its structure. Because WFIRST has such a large and sensitive field of view, it can find thousands of new exoplanets through a process called microlensing. When one star in the sky appears to pass nearly in front of another, the light rays of the background source star become bent due to the gravitational "attraction" of the foreground star. This "lens" star is then a virtual magnifying glass, amplifying the brightness of the background source star. If the lens star harbors a planetary system, then those planets can also act as lenses, each one producing a short deviation in the brightness of the source. For closer planets, WFIRST will open a new era of direct observation. Currently only a handful of planets are observable in light reflected off of them, and they are all large planets close to their stars. WFIRST will be able to detect planets as small as Neptune, and as far from their stars as Saturn is from the sun. This is possible thanks to newly developed coronagraphs, which block the bright light from the star to make the planet more visible.
  • WFIRST: The Best of Both Worlds
    2016.02.18
    NASA officially is beginning work on an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe -- the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). With a view 100 times bigger than that of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope WFIRST will aid researchers in their efforts to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. It also will discover new worlds outside our solar system and advance the search for worlds that could be suitable for life. WFIRST is the agency's next major astrophysics observatory, following the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. The observatory will survey large regions of the sky in near-infrared light to answer fundamental questions about the structure and evolution of the universe, and expand our knowledge of planets beyond our solar system – known as exoplanets. It will carry a Wide Field Instrument for surveys, and a Coronagraph Instrument designed to block the glare of individual stars and reveal the faint light of planets orbiting around them. By blocking the light of the host star, the Coronagraph Instrument will enable detailed measurements of the chemical makeup of planetary atmospheres. Comparing these data across many worlds will allow scientists to better understand the origin and physics of these atmospheres, and search for chemical signs of environments suitable for life. The telescope’s sensitivity and wide view will enable a large-scale search for exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of millions of stars in the crowded central region of our galaxy. The survey will net thousands of new exoplanets similar in size and distance from their star as those in our own solar system, complementing the work started by NASA's Kepler mission and the upcoming work of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Employing multiple techniques, astronomers also will use WFIRST to track how dark energy and dark matter have affected the evolution of our universe. Dark energy is a mysterious, negative pressure that has been speeding up the expansion of the universe. Dark matter is invisible material that makes up most of the matter in our universe. By measuring the distances of thousands of supernovae, astronomers can map in detail how cosmic expansion has increased with time. WFIRST also can precisely measure the shapes, positions and distances of millions of galaxies to track the distribution and growth of cosmic structures, including galaxy clusters and the dark matter accompanying them. WFIRST is slated to launch in the mid-2020s. The observatory will begin operations after traveling to a gravitational balance point known as Earth-Sun L2, which is located about one million miles from Earth in a direction directly opposite the Sun. WFIRST is managed at Goddard, with participation by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, also in Pasadena, and a science team comprised of members from U.S. research institutions across the country.

Spacecraft

Information about the WFIRST spacecraft, its instruments, and technical details about the mission.
  • WFIRST 360 spacecraft animations PDR version
    2019.09.02
    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission will help uncover some of the biggest mysteries in the cosmos. The state-of-the-art telescope on the WFIRST spacecraft will play a significant role in this, providing the largest picture of the universe ever seen with the same depth and precision as the Hubble Space Telescope. This animation shows WFIRST as of August 2019 when the telescope for WFIRST has successfully passed its preliminary design review, a major milestone for the mission. This means the telescope has met the performance, schedule, and budget requirements to advance to the next stage of development, where the team will finalize its design.
  • WFIRST Spacecraft Stills
    2019.06.05
    High-resolution still image render of the WFIRST spacecraft against star background. RGB color.
  • WFIRST Updated Spacecraft Beauty Pass Animations
    2016.09.20
    Animation video and stills based off the Mission Concept Review (MCR) design of the WFIRST spacecraft.
  • WFIRST's Wide Field Instrument
    2019.06.26
    In order to know how the universe will end, we must know what has happened to it so far. This is just one mystery NASA's forthcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission will tackle as it explores the distant cosmos. The spacecraft's giant camera, the Wide Field Instrument (WFI), will be fundamental to this exploration. The WFI has just passed its preliminary design review, an important milestone for the mission. It means the WFI successfully met the design, schedule and budget requirements to advance to the next phase of development, where the team will begin detailed design and fabrication of the flight hardware. WFIRST is a next-generation space telescope that will survey the infrared universe from beyond the orbit of the Moon. Its two instruments are a technology demonstration called a coronagraph, and the WFI. The WFI features the same angular resolution as Hubble but with 100 times the field of view. Data it gathers will enable scientists to discover new and uniquely detailed information about planetary systems around other stars. The WFI will also map how matter is structured and distributed throughout the cosmos, which should ultimately allow scientists to discover the fate of the universe. The WFI is designed to detect faint infrared light from across the universe. Infrared light is observed at wavelengths longer than the human eye can detect. The expansion of the universe stretches light emitted by distant galaxies, causing visible or ultraviolet light to appear as infrared by the time it reaches us. Such distant galaxies are difficult to observe from the ground because Earth’s atmosphere blocks some infrared wavelengths, and the upper atmosphere glows brightly enough to overwhelm light from these distant galaxies. By going into space and using a Hubble-size telescope, the WFI will be sensitive enough to detect infrared light from farther than any previous telescope. This will help scientists capture a new view of the universe that could help solve some of its biggest mysteries, one of which is how the universe became the way it is now. The WFI will allow scientists to peer very far back in time. Seeing the universe in its early stages will help scientists unravel how it expanded throughout its history. This will illuminate how the cosmos developed to its present condition, enabling scientists to predict how it will continue to evolve. With its large field of view, the WFI will provide a wealth of information in each image it takes. This will dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to gather data, allowing scientists to conduct research that would otherwise be impractical. With the successful completion of the WFI’s preliminary design review, the WFIRST mission is on target for its planned launch in the mid-2020s. Scientists will soon be able to explore some of the biggest mysteries in the cosmos thanks to the WFI’s wide field of view and precision optics.
  • WFIRST's Coronagraph Instrument
    2019.09.24
    When a new NASA space telescope opens its eyes in the mid 2020s, it will peer at the universe through some of the most sophisticated sunglasses ever designed. This multi-layered technology, the coronagraph instrument, might more rightly be called “starglasses”: a system of masks, prisms, detectors and even self-flexing mirrors built to block out the glare from distant stars — and reveal the planets in orbit around them. Normally, that glare is overwhelming, blotting out any chance of seeing orbiting planets. The star’s photons — particles of light — swamp those from the planet when they hit the telescope. WFIRST’s coronagraph just completed a major milestone: a preliminary design review by NASA. The instrument has met all design, schedule and budget requirements, and can now proceed to the next phase, building hardware for flight. The WFIRST mission’s coronagraph is meant to demonstrate the power of increasingly advanced technology. As it captures light directly from large, gaseous exoplanets, and from disks of dust and gas surrounding other stars, it will point the way to the future: single pixel “images” of rocky planets the size of Earth. Then the light can be spread into a rainbow spectrum, revealing which gases are present in the planet’s atmosphere — perhaps oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, and maybe even signs of life. The two flexible mirrors inside the coronagraph are key components. As light that has traveled tens of light-years from an exoplanet enters the telescope, thousands of actuators move like pistons, changing the shape of the mirrors in real time. The flexing of these “deformable mirrors” compensates for tiny flaws and changes in the telescope’s optics. Changes on the mirrors’ surfaces are so precise they can compensate for errors smaller than the width of a strand of DNA. These mirrors, in tandem with high-tech “masks,” another major advance, squelch the star’s diffraction as well – the bending of light waves around the edges of light-blocking elements inside the coronagraph. The result: blinding starlight is sharply dimmed, and faintly glowing, previously hidden planets appear. The star-dimming technology also could bring the clearest-ever images of distant star systems’ formative years — when they are still swaddled in disks of dust and gas as infant planets take shape inside. The instrument’s deformable mirrors and other advanced technology — known as “active wavefront control” — should mean a leap of 100 to 1,000 times the capability of previous coronagraphs.
  • WFIRST Orbit Diagrams
    2016.09.20
    Animation showing the difference between the type of planet WFIRST will be able to directly image, versus what has been directly imaged in the past.
  • WFIRST Image Size Comparison
    2016.09.20
    WFIRST, the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, is a NASA observatory designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. The telescope has a primary mirror that is 2.4 meters in diameter (7.9 feet), and is the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope's primary mirror. WFIRST will have two instruments, the Wide Field Instrument, and the Coronagraph Instrument. The Wide Field Instrument will have a field of view that is 100 times greater than the Hubble infrared instrument, capturing more of the sky with less observing time. As the primary instrument, the Wide Field Instrument will measure light from a billion galaxies over the course of the mission lifetime. It will perform a microlensing survey of the inner Milky Way to find ~2,600 exoplanets.
  • WFIRST Spacecraft Details
    2016.09.20
    Animation showing the WFIRST spacecraft, some mission details, and then labels for the major parts of the spacecraft.
  • The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    2016.09.20
    The electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is the range of all types of EM radiation. Radiation is energy that travels and spreads out as it goes – the visible light that comes from a lamp in your house and the radio waves that come from a radio station are two types of electromagnetic radiation. The other types of EM radiation that make up the electromagnetic spectrum are microwaves, infrared light, ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma-rays.

Universe

WFIRST will study large-scale features of the universe to learn more about dark energy and dark matter.
  • Dark Energy Expansion
    2016.09.20
    In the early 1990s, one thing was fairly certain about the expansion of the Universe. It might have enough energy density to stop its expansion and recollapse, it might have so little energy density that it would never stop expanding, but gravity was certain to slow the expansion as time went on. Granted, the slowing had not been observed, but, theoretically, the Universe had to slow. The Universe is full of matter and the attractive force of gravity pulls all matter together. Then came 1998 and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observations of very distant supernovae that showed that, a long time ago, the Universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. So the expansion of the Universe has not been slowing due to gravity, as everyone thought, it has been accelerating. No one expected this, no one knew how to explain it. But something was causing it. Eventually theorists came up with three sorts of explanations. Maybe it was a result of a long-discarded version of Einstein's theory of gravity, one that contained what was called a "cosmological constant." Maybe there was some strange kind of energy-fluid that filled space. Maybe there is something wrong with Einstein's theory of gravity and a new theory could include some kind of field that creates this cosmic acceleration. Theorists still don't know what the correct explanation is, but they have given the solution a name. It is called dark energy.
  • Content of the Universe Pie Chart
    2016.09.20
    Planck data reveals that the universe's contents include 4.9% ordinary matter, or atoms, the building blocks of stars and planets. Dark matter comprises 26.8% of the universe. This matter, different from atoms, does not emit or absorb light. It has only been detected indirectly by its gravity. 68.3% of the universe, is composed of "dark energy", that acts as a sort of an anti-gravity. This energy, distinct from dark matter, is responsible for the present-day acceleration of the universal expansion.
  • Dark Matter Gravitational Lensing Animation
    2016.09.20
    Because scientists can't see dark matter directly, they have found other ways to investigate it. We can use indirect ways to study things, like looking at a shadow and making an educated guess about what's casting the shadow. One way scientists indirectly study dark matter is by using gravitational lensing. Light going through a gravitational lens is similar to light going through an optical lens: It gets bent. When light from distant stars passes through a galaxy or cluster, the gravity of the matter present in the galaxy or cluster causes the light to bend. As a result, the light looks like it is coming from somewhere else rather than from its actual origin. The amount of bending helps scientists learn about the dark matter present.
  • Universe Expansion Funnel
    2016.09.20
    A representation of the evolution of the universe over 13.77 billion years. The far left depicts the earliest moment we can now probe, when a period of "inflation" produced a burst of exponential growth in the universe. (Size is depicted by the vertical extent of the grid in this graphic.) For the next several billion years, the expansion of the universe gradually slowed down as the matter in the universe pulled on itself via gravity. More recently, the expansion has begun to speed up again as the repulsive effects of dark energy have come to dominate the expansion of the universe.
  • Big Bang 4k
    2017.12.22
    Artist's interpretation of the Big Bang.

Exoplanets

WFIRST will advance our understanding of exoplanets, provide a comprehensive view of the formation, evolution, and physical properties of planetary systems, and lay the foundation for, the discovery and characterization of a habitable Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star.
  • Gravitational Microlensing Animation
    2016.09.20
    Gravitational microlensing is an observational effect that was predicted in 1936 by Einstein using his General Theory of Relativity. When one star in the sky appears to pass nearly in front of another, the light rays of the background source star become bent due to the gravitational "attraction" of the foreground star. This star is then a virtual magnifying glass, amplifying the brightness of the background source star, so we refer to the foreground star as the lens star. If the lens star harbors a planetary system, then those planets can also act as lenses, each one producing a short deviation in the brightness of the source. Thus we discover the presence of each exoplanet, and measure its mass and separation from its star. This technique will tell us how common Earth- like planets are, and will guide the design of future exoplanet imaging missions. More than 20 planets have been discovered from the ground using this technique. The WFIRST microlensing survey will detect many more such planets, including smaller mass planets since the planet "spike" will be far more likely to be observed from a space-based platform. This will lead to a statistical census of exoplanets with masses greater than a tenth of the Earth's mass from the outer habitable zone out to free floating planets. The results from the WFIRST microlensing survey will complement the exoplanet statistics from Kepler, and will provide answers to questions about planet formation, evolution, and the prevalence of planets in the galaxy.
  • WFIRST Coronagraph Animation
    2016.09.20
    A coronagraph works by blocking the bright light of a star to allower dimmer objects, like orbiting exoplanets, to become visible. This in turn allows cameras to directly image the exoplanet. Direct imaging provides the critical approach to studying the detailed properties of exoplanets. Images and spectra of directly imaged planets provide some of the most powerful information about the structure, composition, and physics of planetary atmospheres. This information can in turn help scientists better understand the origin and evolution of these systems. The direct imaging technique is also naturally applicable to the nearest and brightest, and thus best-characterized, solar systems. Advancing the technology for direct imaging of exoplanets was the top priority medium-scale space investment recommended by NWNH. Coronagraphy on WFIRST will be a major step towards the long-term goal of a mission that can image habitable Earth-mass planets around nearby stars and measure their spectra for signs of life.
  • WFIRST's Coronagraph Instrument
    2019.09.24
    When a new NASA space telescope opens its eyes in the mid 2020s, it will peer at the universe through some of the most sophisticated sunglasses ever designed. This multi-layered technology, the coronagraph instrument, might more rightly be called “starglasses”: a system of masks, prisms, detectors and even self-flexing mirrors built to block out the glare from distant stars — and reveal the planets in orbit around them. Normally, that glare is overwhelming, blotting out any chance of seeing orbiting planets. The star’s photons — particles of light — swamp those from the planet when they hit the telescope. WFIRST’s coronagraph just completed a major milestone: a preliminary design review by NASA. The instrument has met all design, schedule and budget requirements, and can now proceed to the next phase, building hardware for flight. The WFIRST mission’s coronagraph is meant to demonstrate the power of increasingly advanced technology. As it captures light directly from large, gaseous exoplanets, and from disks of dust and gas surrounding other stars, it will point the way to the future: single pixel “images” of rocky planets the size of Earth. Then the light can be spread into a rainbow spectrum, revealing which gases are present in the planet’s atmosphere — perhaps oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, and maybe even signs of life. The two flexible mirrors inside the coronagraph are key components. As light that has traveled tens of light-years from an exoplanet enters the telescope, thousands of actuators move like pistons, changing the shape of the mirrors in real time. The flexing of these “deformable mirrors” compensates for tiny flaws and changes in the telescope’s optics. Changes on the mirrors’ surfaces are so precise they can compensate for errors smaller than the width of a strand of DNA. These mirrors, in tandem with high-tech “masks,” another major advance, squelch the star’s diffraction as well – the bending of light waves around the edges of light-blocking elements inside the coronagraph. The result: blinding starlight is sharply dimmed, and faintly glowing, previously hidden planets appear. The star-dimming technology also could bring the clearest-ever images of distant star systems’ formative years — when they are still swaddled in disks of dust and gas as infant planets take shape inside. The instrument’s deformable mirrors and other advanced technology — known as “active wavefront control” — should mean a leap of 100 to 1,000 times the capability of previous coronagraphs.
  • WFIRST Milky Way Exoplanet Locations Animation
    2016.09.20
    The first exoplanets to be discovered were gas giants, but today it is becoming clear that there are probably many more "small" planets, in the Earth to Super-Earth range, than there are giants. Discovering the statistics of these planets is crucial for understanding their formation and commonality. Gravitational microlensing is a method of finding exoplanets by watching for when their gravity slightly magnifies the light from background stars. This technique will tell us how common Earth- like planets are, and will guide the design of future exoplanet imaging missions. More than 20 planets have been discovered from the ground using this technique. The WFIRST microlensing survey will detect many more such planets, including smaller mass planets since the planet "spike" will be far more likely to be observed from a space-based platform. This will lead to a statistical census of exoplanets with masses greater than a tenth of the Earth's mass from the outer habitable zone out to free floating planets. The results from the WFIRST microlensing survey will complement the exoplanet statistics from Kepler, and will provide answers to questions about planet formation, evolution, and the prevalence of planets in the galaxy.
  • Exoplanet Animations
    2016.09.20
    Animation imagining what an ice-covered exoplanet might look like.
  • Exoplanet scale
    2017.01.13
    Illustrates scale of various exoplanets as compared to Earth and the moon.

Presentation Resources