Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory members selected to work on NASA’s WFIRST project

Neil Gehrels/Courtesy

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On Thursday, NASA announced its Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, project, and selected Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists as members of its scientific investigation team.

Expected to launch in the mid-2020s, WFIRST is a space telescope designed to explore dark energy and discover exoplanets and signs of life on other planets in the near-infrared wavelength zone. According to Neil Gehrels, a WFIRST project member and astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the approximately $2.5 billion project will allow researchers to study one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy: dark energy.

Saul Perlmutter, a campus professor of physics and scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will lead a team of 29 members — including other scientists from Berkeley Lab and various universities — in the investigation of dark energy using supernovae.

According to Berkeley Lab scientist Alex Kim, a member of the WFIRST team, the team’s mission is to ensure that the design of the telescope instruments and observation strategy is as efficient as possible. The team will conduct extensive research on imaging galaxies with spectrographs, instruments that separate light into a frequency spectrum, Kim said.

“It’s a matter of connecting science breadth with properties of a telescope and figuring out how to make WFIRST produce the maximum science that we want,” he said.

Kim noted that current detectors used to capture images of galaxies are not well equipped for use in the infrared zone, so the team must figure out how to design the spectrograph around the challenge of low-quality detectors.

Another concern, according to Klaus Pontoppidan — deputy project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute and member of Perlmutter’s team — is how to effectively sort through the large amount of data collected by WFIRST. One image taken by the WFIRST is equivalent to 100 images taken by the Hubble telescope, he said.

“WFIRST is basically the Hubble on steroids,” Pontoppidan said. “Whenever we have enormous data but we only need to look at a small section, it becomes very challenging to sift through all the data at a rapid scale.”

Berkeley Lab scientist Greg Aldering, also a team member, noted that currently there is no theory that explains why the the expansion of the universe is accelerating. He said he hopes that WFIRST will aid astronomers in finding enough clues to formulate a theory.

According to Gehrels, astronomers in a 2010 decadal survey ranked WFIRST as the top mission for NASA to pursue.

“I’m most excited about looking over large parts of the universe to find rare and interesting objects like supernovae explosions and unusual galaxies,” Gehrels said. “(We’re) hoping to find the most distant galaxies in the universe once formed very soon after the Big Bang.”

Contact Roann Pao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @roann_pao”