NASA has chosen SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch its next major 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 foundational force behind the Hubble Space Telescope. Fittingly, the Roman Space Telescope’s basic design is reminiscent of Hubble in many ways, owing to the fact that the mission exists solely because the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) chose to donate an unused multi-billion-dollar spy satellite – a satellite that was effectively 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 dramatically more capable than the Hubble telescope it resembles. And now, after a several-year fight for survival, the Roman Space Telescope officially has a ride to space – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
Falcon Heavy continues to be a bit of a paradox, winning contract after contract for increasingly high-value flagship launches despite having not launched once in more than three years. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, at this point, as the major missions that are increasingly being entrusted to Falcon Heavy are far more likely to run into significant spacecraft-side delays. At one point in late 2021, for example, SpaceX had five Falcon Heavy launches tentatively planned in 2022 – all but one of which had already been delayed several months to a year or more. Seven months into 2022, not one of those missions has launched and it’s looking increasingly likely that Falcon Heavy will be lucky to fly at all this year.
Nonetheless, the Roman Space Telescope joins an impressive manifest that includes the multi-billion-dollar GOES-U weather satellite, NASA’s ~$5 billion Europa Clipper, two modules (HALO and PPE) of a Moon-orbiting space station, NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer, a large Astrobotic Griffin lander carrying 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 a similar resolving power, RST’s primary wide-field instrument will have a field of view 100 times greater than Hubble, meaning that the new telescope will be able to gather magnitudes more data in a similar time. Its primary goals include measuring “light from a billion galaxies over the course of the mission lifetime” and performing “a microlensing survey of the inner Milky Way to find ~2,600 exoplanets.” A…