simulated WFIRST view of M31

As the newly appointed Science Operations Center, the institute will help ensure the scientific success of NASA’s upcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope scheduled for launch in the mid-2020s.

About This Article

In 2019, the institute was contracted by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to be the Science Operations Center for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). The work builds on the pre-formulation, formulation, and design activities that our teams have performed for the WFIRST mission since 2014, and supports continued systems engineering and design, instrument and science support activities, and outreach through September 2021.

100 Hubbles for the 2020s

Ranked as the highest scientific priority for a large space astrophysics mission in the 2010 Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies, WFIRST is designed to collect the big data needed to tackle essential questions across a wide range of topics, touching upon virtually every class of astronomical object, environment, and distance. 

With its 2.4-meter mirror, 300-megapixel Wide Field Instrument, and near-infrared sensitivity, WFIRST will be able to capture the equivalent of 100 high-resolution near-infrared Hubble Space Telescope images in a single pointing. Its expansive field of view, combined with its stable observing position 1 million miles from Earth and its ability to rapidly change targets, will enable WFIRST to survey the sky up to thousands of times faster than Hubble with the same fine detail, quickly gathering enormous amounts of imaging and spectroscopic data from millions of galaxies and billions of individual stars. WFIRST will also have a Coronagraphic Instrument, a technology demonstration designed to pave the way for high-contrast direct imaging and spectroscopy of Earth-sized exoplanets by future large space-based missions that are being considered for the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2020. 

Leveraging Experience and Expertise

In its official capacity as the Science Operations Center, STScI has the privilege and responsibility of ensuring WFIRST’s scientific success, just as we do for Hubble. Our teams are charged with developing methods to cost-effectively and efficiently plan, schedule, and carry out observations; calibrate, process, and archive mission datasets; support instrument commissioning; and engage and inform both the astronomical community and the public.

Completing these tasks successfully requires a diverse array of skillsets. The institute is able to leverage its nearly 40 years of running scientific operations for NASA flagship missions, as well as the experience and expertise of numerous teams across the institute. The WFIRST Science Operations Center now comprises a dedicated WFIRST Mission Office along with WFIRST-focused teams in engineering, science support, integration and testing, data management and archives, and public outreach. It involves over 100 individuals at STScI, many of whom also continue to actively support Hubble and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, and proposed future missions.

Building on existing relationships, STScI will collaborate closely with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the mission; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is developing the Coronagraphic Instrument; IPAC/Caltech, which provides science support for the Coronagraphic Instrument and elements of the Wide Field Instrument as the observatory’s Science Support Center; and with researchers from institutions across the country, as well as various industrial and international partners.

simulated WFIRST view of M31
Planning Observations and Communicating with the Public
This simulated image of a portion of Andromeda (M31) highlights the high resolution and large field of view of WFIRST’s Wide Field Instrument. The image is based on optical and infrared data from the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program, and was made using the Space Telescope Image Product Simulator (STIPS), one of a number of tools developed at STScI for planning Webb and WFIRST observations. This image and other similar images are being used by STScI’s Office of Public Outreach to communicate WFIRST’s wide-reaching scientific capabilities to both astronomers and the public. Learn More

Planning for Big Data

One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of the WFIRST mission will be the enormous amounts of data that it will yield: an archive with an estimated 20 petabytes—the equivalent of a 40,000-year-long song in mp3 format—over its five-year planned mission. The institute’s role as the Science Operations Center includes designing systems to process and archive the data in a timely manner so it is easily accessible to the astronomical community and the public as quickly as possible.

All of the WFIRST imaging and spectroscopic data will be held in the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the institute, where it will join that of more than 20 other ground- and space-based missions, including Hubble, Webb, NASA’s Kepler/K2 mission, and NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite).

Complementing Other Missions

WFIRST’s combination of capabilities will be a valuable complement to those of other observatories, including Hubble and Webb. In fact, with a launch date set for the mid-2020s, astronomers expect that the three will be able to team up: with WFIRST providing the large field of view and rapid survey speed in the near-infrared; Hubble continuing to provide ultraviolet and visible light coverage; and Webb following up to observe particular targets in more detail and farther into the infrared. By conducting all three science operations under one roof, the institute will help magnify the scientific impact of all three missions.

Simulated WFIRST Observation of Andromeda (M31)

Andromeda galaxy with telescope field of view overlays
A composite figure of our neighboring Andromeda galaxy highlights the extremely large field of view of WFIRST’s Wide Field Instrument (outlined in white) compared to Hubble’s infrared camera (red) and the region covered by the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) mosaic (teal), the largest Hubble mosaic ever created. The PHAT, which covers a 61,000-light-year swath of Andromeda, consists of more than 400 composite images collected over more than 650 hours of infrared observing time. WFIRST will be able to cover the entire PHAT, at the same resolution, with just two pointings (taking about an hour total). And by pairing Hubble observations with WFIRST’s, scientists will be able to analyze Andromeda in light that ranges from infrared to ultraviolet. View the Full Image