NASA Spending Big on Its Next Generation Alien-Hunting Telescope

NASA Spending Big on Its Next Generation Alien-Hunting Telescope

NASA has been allocated $500 million by the federal government this year to work on its next breakthrough space telescope.

Details of the space agency’s 2022 budget were released by Congress on Tuesday, though it is still subject to approval later this month.

In total, NASA was given just over $24 billion—slightly shy of the $24.8 billion it had initially requested. The agency has big ambitions currently, not least the Artemis program that is aiming to return humans to the moon within a few years.

One $500 million chunk of the budget has been assigned to NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is slated for launch no later than May 2027.

The Roman Space Telescope will be a next-generation observatory designed to peer across the universe, with a field of view 200 times larger than Hubble’s. This means the telescope will be able to create vast panoramas of space that would take Hubble hundreds of years to complete.

NASA hopes that Roman will reveal significant numbers of rocky worlds around distant stars where liquid water might exist. Its light detectors will be so sensitive that the telescope will be able to count individual photons of light as they arrive.

According to NASA, no other observatory has done this kind of imaging in visible light before and it will provide a vital step towards discovering habitable planets.

In addition, the telescope could also shed light onto the great puzzles of dark energy and dark matter—mysterious properties of the universe that scientists are still boggled by today.

Using its vast field of view, Roman will map galaxies and dark matter to see how large cosmic structures form. By studying dark energy it may also provide clues as to why the universe’s expansion is accelerating.

Roman passed a critical design review in September 2021—a sign that the design and developmental work was complete. Currently, the Roman team at NASA are in the building and testing stage.

Less than three months ago NASA launched its current breakthrough space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently preparing itself for its first scientific observations later this year.

According to the NASA budget, $174.5 million was assigned for James Webb operations this year—significantly less than the money now being funneled towards Roman’s construction.

Still, NASA anticipates that Roman will cost less than James Webb overall. The budget notes that NASA is expected to use a $3.5 billion development cost cap for Roman while James Webb ended up costing roughly $10 billion. That said, the costs of Roman may well go up in the coming years.

Initially named the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the telescope was renamed in 2020 in honor of Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer who was considered the “mother” of the Hubble Space Telescope. She died in 2018.

Roman Space Telescope
An illustration of the Roman Space Telescope taken from a NASA video released in May, 2020. With its wide field of view, it is hoped that the telescope will aid in the search for life.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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