The James Webb Space Telescope has continued to reveal the beauty and mystery of the universe since delivering its first images in July of last year – but the mission to deploy the next big space telescope is already well under way.
The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will be the next large space telescope to be launched after the deployment of NASA’s newest telescope, which itself was the successor to the still-active Hubble Telescope.
One of the European Space Agency (ESA) scientists working on the project told Euronews.next that the Roman launch would open “a new era for astronomy”. It will collect more data than any other NASA mission launched before, and attempt to answer some of the biggest questions in astrophysics.
Scheduled to launch by 2027 at the latest, Marco Siriani, ESA’s director of science operations development who works on the project with NASA, explained that it would be able to capture “a more panoramic view of the universe and allow for more statistical studies.”
During a NASA-led mission, the European Space Agency contributes some technology and expertise to the mission, in exchange for access to the unprecedented amount of data it will provide.
Here’s a look at what to expect from the next big NASA space telescope.
How would Roman differ from Hubble and James Webb?
While Hubble and Webb are very good at zooming in to get a detailed look at small parts of the sky, Roman will have a much wider field of view.
It will be able to create infrared images 200 times larger than Hubble while providing the same rich level of detail with its mirror of a similar size, 2.4 meters in diameter.
Siriani said that while it will be able to produce “wonderful” images, which we’re used to from Hubble and Webb, it will essentially be “a telescope dedicated to surveys.”
“In order to look up the number of stars in a nearby galaxy, which is too many for Hubble’s field of view, we have to stitch and make mosaics from very different shots. Using the Roman method, we can take a picture of the whole galaxy in one shot.”
For example, a recent “mosaic” of our neighboring Andromeda galaxy has been laid out with 400 individual images taken by Hubble. Roman will be able to paint the same big picture with the same level of detail using just two pictures. These much larger images mean an unprecedented amount of data will be collected.
“Just to give you an idea, in the 30 years of running Hubble we have collected approximately 170 terabytes of data,” Siriani explained. “For Webb, we expect in five years to have 1,000 terabytes. Over 5 years of Roman life, we expect to have 20,000 terabytes.”
Ultimately, it will collect data on billions of galaxies to create a “3D model of the universe.”
Answering cosmic riddles
With this panoramic view of the universe, NASA and its partners hope to answer some of the biggest questions facing astrophysics.
One of the goals is to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which is well tested against the scale of our solar system for example, but to a lesser extent on larger cosmic scales.
Visible matter within the universe should, according to theory, slow the expansion of the universe, so scientists attribute the universe’s expansion speed to a mysterious element — dark energy — which they believe makes up roughly 68 percent of the universe. .
Roman will give us data that can accurately measure the location and distance of millions of galaxies and will help us understand the expansion rate of the universe in different regions.
Ultimately, the results will tell us whether Einstein’s theory of gravity needs to be modified.
The number of outer planets
Another of Roman’s main goals is to discover thousands of new exoplanets within our galaxy, using a technique called gravitational microlensing.
“If two stars line up with each other, the star in the foreground will distort and magnify the light of the star behind it. And if the star in the foreground has a planet, we will see the effect of that planet on the light of the star behind it,” Siriani said.
He added that given that Roman would be counting billions of stars, it would provide “a very good statistic for how many stars would have exoplanets”.
Not only will it detect new exoplanets, but Roman will carry a second major instrument — called a coronagraph — that aims to image exoplanets close to their home star. “This is a very difficult technique because starlight has to be suppressed – it’s much brighter than the objects you want to study, the nearby planet,” Siriani said.
The Roman Crown will attempt to capture large Jupiter-like planets directly, and make live corrections to improve image quality.
It will be an illustrative tool — and if it proves to work, it will form the basis for technology that will be used in future space observatories that will attempt to image Earth-like planets directly in the habitable zone of their parent star.
ESA’s contribution to Roman
The European Space Agency contributes three key pieces of technology to the Romanian mission, in exchange for access to data and a seat at the table during the mission.
The space agency will provide “startrackers,” small telescopes on the spacecraft that constantly determine its position in the sky by tracking stars. Then it will provide batteries to help power the spacecraft before deploying the solar panels.
Finally, it will also provide on-board coronagraph detectors.
Moreover, ESA’s special mission to measure the expansion of the universe and reveal more about dark energy will launch this summer.
The Euclid Space Telescope will collect information that will then complement the data collected by Roman.
Like ESA’s contribution to Roman, NASA is making small contributions to the Euclid mission as well.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”