NASA says it will send a new probe meant to understand the nature of mysterious dark energy, which makes up of about three-quarters of the universe and drives its endless expansion. The agency has proposed a Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, which is tentatively scheduled to launch in the mid 2020s. The mission will also give NASA the opportunity to discover new alien planets—as many as 3,000, NASA said.
Researchers use a number of methods to detect planets. NASA’s Kepler, for example, focuses on the dimming of light that occurs when a planet cross the face of its host star. But the WFIRST, which is equipped with 300-megapixels per image and 100 times Webb’s field of view, would use a technique that relies on gravitational microlensing. Via Space, astronomers will use WFIRST to note when a big object passes between Earth and a background stare. “The foreground’s object’s gravity bends and amplifies the light from the background star, acting like a magnifying glass,” the news outlet explained.
“If the foreground object is a star, and it has planets, the planets can affect the magnified light, creating a signal that astronomers can detect,” Space said. Albert Einstein described the process behind this strategy based on his general theory of relativity all the way back in 1936. NASA has used microlensing to detect planets before, but those were Earth-based telescopes; the WFIRST will be NASA’s space-based telescope using this technique.
“This will dramatically improve our yield of planets,” said Scott Gaudi, of Ohio State University.
When WFIRST launches, it’ll give researchers a better understanding of what types of planets exist, including the rarity of our own. Whereas Kepler is a pro at spotting planets close to their host star, WFIRST will have the capability of spotting larger bodies farther from their suns. The probe will also be more adept at spotting free-floating planets, as well as smaller distant planets. Researchers anticipate WFIRST to spot about 300 Earth-size worlds, along with 1,000 super-Earths.
An official launch isn’t expected for at least 10 years, maybe more, so we’ll have to wait and see what researchers learn about them. Even then, scientists warn following up on the WFIRST’s findings will be limited. But at least it will expand their knowledge of what’s out there, ultimately allowing for stronger statistical conclusions to be drawn about how rare Earth-size planets are.