NASA has chosen SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch its next major space telescope, a large-field observatory to be a direct complement to 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. It is fitting that the basic design of the Roman space telescope is in many ways reminiscent of Hubble, as the mission only exists because the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) chose to donate an unused multi-billion dollar spy satellite — a satellite that was in basically a secret Earth-facing version of Hubble.
However, thanks to decades of improvements in electronics, electromechanics and the instrumentation side of spacecraft and space telescopes, RST will be significantly more capable than the Hubble telescope it resembles. And now, after several years of fighting for survival, the Roman Space Telescope officially has a ride to space – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
Falcon Heavy remains a bit of a paradox, winning contract after contract for increasingly high-end flagship launches despite not launching once in more than three years. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point, as the major missions increasingly entrusted to Falcon Heavy are much more likely to experience significant delays on the part of the spacecraft. For example, at some point in late 2021, SpaceX had: five Falcon Heavy launches were tentatively scheduled for 2022 — all but one launches had been delayed by several months to a year or more. Seven months into 2022, none of those missions have launched, and it looks increasingly likely that Falcon Heavy will be lucky enough to fly this year.
Nevertheless, the Roman Space Telescope joins an impressive manifesto that includes the multi-billion dollar GOES-U weather satellite, NASA’s ~$5 billion Europa Clipper, two modules (HALO and PPE) of a lunar orbiting space station, NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer, a large Astrobotic Griffin lander with NASA’s VIPER Moon rover, two large geostationary communications satellites, and three missions for the US military. RST is the rocket’s 11th launch contract between now and the mid-2020s.
Despite having similar resolving power, RST’s primary wide-field instrument will have a field of view 100 times larger than Hubble, meaning the new telescope will be able to greats more data in the same time. Its primary goals include measuring “light from a billion galaxies over the lifetime of the mission” and conducting “a microlens survey of the inner Milky Way to find ~2,600 exoplanets.” A second coronagraph instrument will “perform contrast imaging and spectroscopy of dozens of individual nearby exoplanets.” According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “The Coronagraph provides a critical stepping stone 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 specific studies to address open questions” [about the nature and] effects of dark energy and dark matter, as well as a substantial general research program to enable further studies of astrophysical phenomena to achieve other scientific goals.”
Because RST also targets infrared wavelengths of light, it could make an excellent addition to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). While RST is a wide-angle observatory that aims to observe and catalog billions of galaxies, stars and planets, JWST’s much larger mirror is optimized for close observation of individual targets or deep views into small swaths of sky. RST could end up working a bit like an MRI or CAT scan for JWST’s biopsy, telling the surgeon where to look but only giving a hint as to what he might find.
According to NASA, the space telescope’s ~$4.3 billion Falcon Heavy launch contract will cost an exceptionally high $255 million to launch the spacecraft to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point about 800,000 kilometers (~500,000 miles) from Earth. send. NASA’s contract to launch the even more expensive Europa Clipper spacecraft all the way to Jupiter with a fully replaceable Falcon Heavy rocket is expected to cost less than $180 million.
NASA’s press release also claims that RST will be ready to launch as early as October 2026. Another press release from September 2021 did not mention the target for 2026 and only noted that the launch of RST is not planned later than May 2027.