NASA's new mission could find more than 1,000 planets



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Credit: NASA

A NASA telescope that will give man the widest, deepest, and clearest image of the universe since the Hubble Space Telescope could find up to 1,400 new planets out of the Earth's solar system, according to new research.

The new telescope paves the way for more accurate and targeted research of extraterrestrial life, according to the researchers.

The study, conducted by a team of astronomers from Ohio State University, provides the most detailed estimates to date on the potential scope of the mission of the wide-field infrared surveyor telescope (nicknamed WFIRST). It was designed by NASA and the country's astronomers the new planets and the search for black energy, the mysterious force that enters an otherwise empty space and that could hold the keys to understand how the expansion from the universe. Their work was published on February 25 in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

"We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are," said Matthew Penny, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the state astronomy department of Ohio. "To do that, you do not just have to look at where the obvious and easy things are, you have to watch everything."

The planets that WFIRST will probably find will be farther from their stars than most of the planets discovered to date, Penny said. The mission will build on the work of Kepler, a deep space telescope that has detected more than 2,600 planets out of our solar system. The Kepler mission has ended on October 30, 2018.

"Kepler started looking for planets that gravitate around their stars closer to Earth than our Sun," Penny said. "WFIRST will complete it by finding planets with larger orbits."

To find new planets, WFIRST will use the gravitational microlens, a technique that relies on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light coming from the stars that pass behind them from the point of view of the telescope.

This microlensed effect, which is connected to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, allows the telescope to detect planets orbiting stars lying thousands of light-years away from the Earth. Earth, far more distant than other planet detection techniques. But since the microlens only work when the gravity of one planet or star inflects the light of another star, the effect of a given planet or star is only visible for a few hours all the few million years. WFIRST will spend long periods constantly watching 100 million stars in the center of the galaxy.

The Penny study predicted that about 100 of these still undiscovered planets might have the same mass or mass less than that of the Earth.

The new telescope will map the Milky Way and other galaxies 100 times faster than the famous Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990.

The WFIRST mission, with a budget of about $ 3.2 billion, will analyze a small piece of the universe – about 2 square degrees – at a higher resolution than any similar mission in the past. This resolution, said Penny, will allow WFIRST to see more stars and planets than any previously organized search.

"Although it's a small fraction of the sky, it's huge compared to what other space telescopes can do," Penny said. "It's the unique combination of WFIRST, both a wide field of view and a high resolution, that makes it so powerful for microlens planet searches." Previous space telescopes, including Hubble and James Webb, had to choose one or the other. "

According to Penny, WFIRST should give astronomers, astrophysicists and others who are studying the space significantly more information about more planets outside of our solar system.

"WFIRST will allow us to find types of planets we have never seen before," said Penny. "From the WFIRST microlens survey, we will see how often different types of planets are formed and how unique our solar system is."

Until now, scientists have discovered nearly 700 planetary systems, also called solar systems, containing several planets. And they discovered some 4000 planets. But even though humans have looked for signs of life in near and far galaxies, most of the time they have discovered planets closer to their stars than the Earth is to our Sun.

The "infrared" part of the wide-field geometer telescope is also important, Penny said.

"The infrared light allows WFIRST to see through the dust in the plane of the Milky Way between us and the galactic center, which optical telescopes on the ground can not do," he said. "This gives WFIRST access to denser parts of the sky filled with stars."

The state of Ohio has played an important role in WFIRST, from launching the project to designing research programs that the telescope will perform.

The mission is still in the planning stage. NASA has announced its intention to move forward with WFIRST in February 2016 and began its initial planning in May 2018.


Explore further:
The final image of Kepler

More information:
Matthew T. Penny et al, Prediction of the WFIRST Microlensing Survey. I. Detection rate of bound planets, Series of Supplements to the Astrophysical Journal (2019). DOI: 10.3847 / 1538-4365 / aafb69

Journal reference:
Astrophysical Journal

Provided by:
State University of Ohio

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