Check out the next great space telescope: WFIRST!

By June 27, 2017 January 14th, 2019 No Comments

So, here I sit, participating as one of only two solar system scientists for a conference on WFIRST — the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope — that is nominally dedicated to studying big-picture astrophysics topics such as dark energy, black holes, re-ionization in the early Universe, stars, and so much more. This space telescope will be launched sometime next decade, has a bit of an interesting back-story (NASA inherited the telescope from National Reconnaissance Office), it is similar in size to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and it’s going to be almost the best of all worlds when it comes to telescopes — it’s big AND it will have a wide field-of-view AND it’ll be in space.  It’s all very cool, but if you know me you might ask…. …what is an asteroid guy doing at a WFIRST science conference? I’m glad you asked. From my perspective, it’s all about taking advantage of opportunities to do really cool science. Now, knowing that all past big astrophysics space telescopes have done some solar system research and knowing that NASA and the mission team have begun to design the instruments for this telescope, a team at NASA and some interested solar system scientists have pooled resources to devise some pretty cool science projects using WFIRST. As I do spectroscopy of asteroids to try to find out what they’re made of and see if any meteorites might be similar to them, I jumped onto this opportunity and have been helping the team devise a variety of science cases since the beginning of this year. So, how can WFIRST help us learn about asteroids? Well, WFIRST will carry a spectrograph that studies visible and infrared light, the latter that we cannot see with our eyes, but is very important when it comes to understanding asteroids. Asteroids are space rocks and, well, rocks are made of minerals, and near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy can identify some of the more common minerals from the reflected sunlight that bounces off of asteroid surfaces and makes its way to telescopes on Earth and in space. One thing about asteroid research is that there are a LOT of asteroids (>700,000 in the main asteroid belt alone located between Mars and Jupiter) and there aren’t that many people doing asteroid research. WFIRST plans to carry a spectrograph that covers the wavelength range from 0.6 to 2.0 microns. This is almost perfect for us asteroid people wanting to understand what the space rocks are made because, prior to WFIRST, we have been primarily relegated to using ground-based telescopes to do this type of work. By using WFIRST, there is the real potential for hundreds, if not thousands, of asteroid spectra to be observed and studied that will ALSO be far superior to ground-based spectra because space telescopes don’t have to deal with the gunky, messy, water-laden atmosphere in which we live and breathe.So, why is this important? If you want to know the internal strengths of asteroids as that is an important parameter to know if an asteroid is going to smack Earth; if you want to understand the physical chemistry of the solar system when it formed ~4.6 billion years ago; if you want to understand the diversity of the geology, mineralogy, chemistry, and petrology of the asteroids and how that relates to meteorites; if you want to better understand how asteroids make craters during impacts; and if you are curious about the motions of the asteroids and how that changes with time, then those are some reasons why it is important. This is truly basic and applied research and it is your tax dollars being spent on very good topics: science, discovery, learning, planetary protection, collaboration, peaceful research, and more. I don’t know what will happen in the future. Will WFIRST actually fly? Will I get guest observer time to study asteroids? Will NASA’s budget allow the mission to go forward? Well, I certainly hope so. WFIRST has the real potential to make substantial scientific progress at scales that range from our celestial backyard (yea, the asteroids!) out to galaxies beyond the Milky Way. This is the type of stuff that motivates us. It’s the universe of existence, baby! You might be asking: how does all of this involve Trouvaille? Well. Trouvaille is about travel, exploration, learning, growth, and expansion. That’s what WFIRST is all about. Whether it’s science, telescopes, travel, planets around other stars, or your next great meal, it’s all about establishing your connection with existence. Personal growth. Expansive thinking. That’s what Trouvaille is all about.    

Paul Hardersen

Paul Hardersen

I am the CEO of Trouvaille LLC.

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