NASA’s Roman Space Telescope Will Unveil Undiscovered Planets
Raji Sahota posted on October 13, 2020 |
The Roman Space Telescope is expected to make amazing discoveries, just like whom it’s named after.
NASA’s newest technology will create enormous panoramic pictures of space in unprecedented detail. (Image courtesy of NASA.)
NASA’s newest technology will create enormous panoramic pictures of space in unprecedented detail. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

NASA’s state-of-the-art Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will be able to uncover secret planets hidden throughout our galaxy. The telescope will help answer vital questions in both net detection and dark energy research. 

The Nancy Grace Roman Telescope compared to the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

The Nancy Grace Roman Telescope compared to the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

The powerful telescope, named after NASA’s first female executive and first Chief of Astronomy, will investigate the newly discovered concept of dark energy, the history of cosmic acceleration as well as the technology for direct imaging and characterization of exoplanets.  The late astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, who died in 2018, was known as the “Mother of Hubble” as her Large Space Telescope initiative led to the creation of that telescope.

The new telescope can capture an image of an area a hundred times larger than previous technology with its a 300-megapixel camera. Roman Space Telescope’s field-of-view zoom compared to the Hubble Space Telescope. (Video courtesy of NASA.)

Formerly known as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the Roman Space Telescope will be used to help further astronomy and astrophysics research by the U.S. National Research Council, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech/IPAC, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and other American research institutions. However, the Space Telescope Science Institute will manage operation of the Roman Space Telescope and share its observations with the astronomical community as well as the public.

The telescope will help solve the biggest mysteries surrounding dark energy and its evolution since the Big Bang. Scientists can now create a map of the distribution of galaxies over time, look for supernovas, and measure the distance or shape of galaxies. This will give us insights into how dark energy forms and expands so quickly. 

However, new simulations of the telescope point to a wider discovery. 

The telescope, which is located thousands of light-years away, near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, will help scientists find ways to understand planet demographics by finding exoplanets as well as determining the life cycle of these planets.

Though astronomers discovered exoplanets in the 1990s, there is still much to be learned about the phenomenon. Exoplanets are any planet that exists outside of our solar system. They can include rogue planets as well as super-Earths, gas giants, ice giants and Earth analogs. Exoplanets orbit their own stars and exist in separate planetary systems.

The new telescope can also help locate and capture rogue planets. Rogue planets are pieces of a planet that do not orbit a star directly and lose the gravitational grip of their parent star during violent collisions and close encounters. They can also be created when clouds of dust and gas form a planet instead of a star. These rogue planets go undetected as they wander the galaxy outside of our solar system hidden from plain sight. 

Through observations by ground-based telescopes, NASA estimates that there are between 1010 and 1012 rogue planets in our galaxy. However, this is a large range. With the help of the new Roman telescope, NASA hopes to determine how many exoplanets are in our galaxy with an accuracy that is at least 10 times more specific than current estimates. 

Exoplanets are found through conducting a large microlensing survey. The microlensing method is when scientists use a star’s gravity and light to create a cosmic magnifying glass. When a star passes in front of another star, it bends the light rays from the source star acting as a lens. The bent light magnifies the other star, making it appear bigger when viewed through the telescope. If an exoplanet passes the source star, it makes the star even brighter and magnifies its image even more. The effect is multiplied when the source star is positioned right behind the intermediate star, acting as a natural magnifying glass.  

Planets are detected when the light curve differs from a normal stellar lens light curve at a very high magnification. This difference can only be captured if there is a high density of the source and lens star toward the Galactic bulge, which isn’t possible using a ground-based telescope. Since ground-based telescopes can only capture bright or large planets located close to an Einstein ring, the Roman telescope will be the one of the first to detect exoplanets due to its gravitational effects on the light of more distant stars.How gravitational microlensing can reveal island worlds. (Video courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab.)

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will be able to systematically detect microlensing events that last as short as one and a half hours, even with low-mass planets. In fact, the telescope will be able to detect free-floating planetary-mass objects over three orders of magnitude less in mass.

Schematic illustration of how the Roman Space Telescope discovers signals caused by planetary companions. (Image courtesy of NASA.)
Schematic illustration of how the Roman Space Telescope discovers signals caused by planetary companions. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

Scientists can gain a deeper understanding of exoplanets and rogue planets as the new telescope will obtain superior microlensing results and sharper views of the planet. 

Launching in the mid-2020s, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will allow scientists to have a profound impact on astronomy and astrophysics research, just like astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, whom the telescope was named after.

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