NASA has chosen SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch its next large space telescope, a wide-field observatory that should directly complement the brand new James Webb Space Telescope.
Originally known as the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), NASA recently renamed the mission in honor of Nancy Grace Roman, a fundamental force behind the Hubble Space Telescope. Fittingly, the basic design of the Roman Space Telescope is reminiscent of Hubble in many ways, due to the fact that the mission only exists because the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) chose to donate a satellite. unused multi-billion dollar spy – a satellite that was actually a secret Earth-facing version of Hubble.
However, thanks to decades of improvements in the electronics, electromechanics and instrumentation side of spacecraft and space telescopes, RST will be considerably more capable than the Hubble telescope it resembles. And now, after years of struggling to survive, the Roman space telescope has officially gone into space – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
Falcon Heavy continues to be a bit of a paradox, winning contract after contract for bigger and bigger flagship launches, despite not launching once in over three years. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, at this point, as the major missions that Falcon Heavy is increasingly given are far more likely to run into major delays on the spacecraft side. At some point in late 2021, for example, SpaceX had five Falcon Heavy launches are tentatively scheduled for 2022 – all but one had already been delayed by months to a year or more. Seven months into 2022, none of these missions have launched, and it seems increasingly likely that Falcon Heavy will get a chance to fly at all this year.
Nonetheless, the Roman Space Telescope joins an impressive manifesto that includes the multi-billion dollar GOES-U weather satellite, NASA’s roughly $5 billion Europa Clipper, two modules (HALO and PPE) of a station spacecraft in lunar orbit, NASA’s asteroid explorer Psyche, a large Astrobotic Griffin lander carrying NASA’s VIPER Moon rover, two large geostationary communications satellites, and three missions for the United States military. RST is the rocket’s 11th launch contract by the mid-2020s.
Despite similar resolving power, RST’s main widefield instrument will have a field of view 100 times greater than Hubble’s, meaning the new telescope will be able to collect sizes more data at the same time. Its main goals are to measure “light from a billion galaxies over the lifetime of the mission” and to perform “a microlensing survey of the inner Milky Way to find approximately 2,600 exoplanets”. A second coronagraph instrument “will perform high-contrast imaging and spectroscopy of dozens of individual nearby exoplanets.” According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “The Coronagraph is a crucial springboard in the preparation of future missions aimed at [directly] image and characterize Earth-like planets [that are] 10 billion times fainter than their host star.
According to NASA, “the telescope’s science program also includes dedicated surveys to resolve outstanding questions. [about the nature and] effects of dark energy and dark matter, as well as a large general research program to enable further studies of astrophysical phenomena to advance other scientific goals.
Since RST also focuses on infrared wavelengths of light, it could be a great companion to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). While RST is a wide-field observatory that aims to observe and catalog billions of galaxies, stars, and planets, JWST’s much larger mirror is optimized for close-up observation of individual targets or deep gazes into tiny bands of sky. RST could ultimately work much like an MRI or CT scan for the JWST biopsy, telling the surgeon where to look but only hinting at what he might find.
According to NASA, the Space Telescope’s approximately $4.3 billion Falcon Heavy launch contract will cost an unusually high $255 million to send the spacecraft to the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point L2 approximately 800,000 kilometers (~500 000 mi) from Earth. NASA’s contract to launch the even more expensive Europa Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter with an all-expendable Falcon Heavy rocket is expected to cost less than $180 million.
The NASA press release also claims that RST will be ready for launch as early as October 2026. A different press release from September 2021 did not mention the 2026 target and only noted that RST was not scheduled for launch. later May 2027.