News ID: 239457
Published: 1144 GMT February 26, 2019

New NASA telescope could discover 1,400 new planets

New NASA telescope could discover 1,400 new planets

A new NASA telescope which academics say "will give humans the largest, deepest, clearest picture of the universe since the Hubble Space Telescope" could find up to 1,400 new planets, according to researchers.

Scientists at Ohio State University in the US conducted a study to estimate the potential reach of the new Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, reported.

Although the mission is still in the planning stages, the research paper set out just how valuable it could be.

The astronomers said that the mission will provide more accurate and focused data contributing to the search for extraterrestrial life on worlds outside of our Solar System.

WFIRST was designed by NASA to do just that, as well as research dark energy — a theoretical form of energy which is believed to be responsible for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

"We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are," said Dr. Matthew Penny, the lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio state department of astronomy.

"To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything."

WFIRST will be building on the work of the Kepler deep-space telescope, which found more than 2,600 planets outside of our Solar System up until October 30 last year.

The distant worlds were discovered in four years of searching, and 49 of them lay in the so-called Goldilocks zone — the area around a star which is considered neither too hot, nor too cold, to sustain complex life.

"Kepler began the search by looking for planets that orbit their stars closer than the Earth is to our sun,” Penny said.

"WFIRST will complete it by finding planets with larger orbits."

In order to find these new planets, WFIRST will use a technique called gravitational microlensing.

This relies on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light coming from stars which are behind them from the telescope's viewpoint, the academics explained.

This microlensing effect, which is connected to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, allows a telescope to find planets orbiting stars thousands of light-years away from the Earth.

In doing so, the telescope will be able to see objects which lie much farther away than can be seen with any other planet-detecting techniques.

However, because microlensing works only when the gravity of a planet or star bends the light from another star, the effect from any given planet or star is only visible for a few hours once every few million years.

According to the academics, this leaves WFIRST facing long periods of its mission time monitoring the 100 million stars at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

The upshot is that WFIRST will be able to map the Milky Way and other galaxies 100 times faster than the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.

WFIRST mission, which has a budget of around $3.2 billion (£2.4 million), will scan a small piece of the universe — about two square degrees of the sky — at a resolution higher than any similar mission in the past.

"Although it's a small fraction of the sky, it's huge compared to what other space telescopes can do," Penny said.

"It's WFIRST's unique combination — both a wide field of view and a high resolution — that make it so powerful for microlensing planet searches.

"Previous space telescopes, including Hubble and James Webb, have had to choose one or the other."

The study is published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.





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