An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), now  the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which will search for exoplanets that are small rocky as well as Neptune sized at a greater distance from their host stars than currently possible.  It will also study multiple cosmic phenomena, including dark energy and other theorized Einsteinian phenomena. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Earlier last week, NASA put out a release alerting journalists to  “an exciting announcement about the agency’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission.”

Given the controversial history of the project — the current administration has formally proposed cancelling it for several years and the astronomy community (and Congress) have been keep it going — it seemed to be a  newsworthy event, maybe a breakthrough regarding an on-again, off-again very high profile project.

And since WFIRST was the top large mission priority of the National Academies of Sciences some years ago — guidance that NASA almost always follows — the story could reflect some change in the administration’s approach to the value of long-established scientific norms.  Plus, it could mean that a space observatory with cutting-edge technology for identifying and studying exoplanets and for learning much more about dark matter and Einsteinian astrophysics might actually be launched in the 2020s.

But instead of a newsy announcement about fate of the space telescope, what NASA disclosed was that the project had been given a new name — the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope.

As one of NASA’S earliest hired and highest-ranking women, Roman spent 21 years at NASA developing and launching space-based observatories that studied the sun, deep space, and Earth’s atmosphere. She most famously worked to develop the concepts behind the Hubble Space Telescope, which just spent its 30th year in orbit.

This is a welcome and no doubt deserving honor.  But it will be much less of an honor if the space telescope is never launched into orbit.  And insights into the fate of WFIRST (the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope) are what really would constitute “an exciting announcement.”

What’s going on?

Nancy Grace Roman at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in the early 1970s (NASA)


I have no special insights, but I think that one of the scientists on the NASA Science Live event was probably on to something when she said:

“I find it tremendously exciting that the observatory is being  renamed,”  said Julie McEnery, deputy project scientist for the (now) NASA Roman mission.   “It’s a mark of how far the mission has come that we are being renamed.  It says something about the development of the mission, that we’re a real thing and that stuff is actually, really being built.”

In other words, the renaming might be a way for NASA to spread the message that the space observatory will indeed be built despite all the doubts, or perhaps to build momentum to make sure it does someday get launched.

McEnery also made clear that she considers the acknowledgement of the work of Nancy Grace Roman to be a tremendous decision.  (Roman’s contribution will be further discussed later in the story.)

“It makes me thrilled and proud to be associated with a mission named after her.  That’s something I’m going to enjoy day after day after day.”

But contrast this upbeat renaming announcement with the language of the administration’s budget request for fiscal 2021:

“The Budget proposes to terminate the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Given delays and cost growth with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is still under development, the Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar space telescope until Webb has been successfully launched and deployed.”

(Congress ignored the administration’s, and NASA’s, similar cancellation request in the 2020 budget and allocated $511 million for continuing development.)

The administration budget continues: “WFIRST was originally envisioned as a less-than-two billion space telescope. Now it is estimated to cost $3.2-$3.9 billion. It is not prudent to develop another large space telescope until the Webb telescope, which has grown to $9.7 billion in lifecycle costs, has successfully launched, deployed, and is operational,” the administration budget document continues.

“In addition, funding both Webb and WFIRST would require redirecting funding from other programs, disrupting the balance of the overall science portfolio,”

The James Webb Space Telescope is a very ambitious project designed to be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. First conceived in 1996, building the JWST has proven to be far more expensive and time-consuming than ever imagined. (NASA)

This kind of conflicting message about the future is found in other NASA releases about the Roman Space Telescope.

For instance, when NASA announced but two months ago that WFIRST “has passed a critical programmatic and technical milestone, giving the mission the official green light to begin hardware development and testing,” a full release was written describing the development.

But the release had a stick-in-the-eye paragraph further down the story saying:

“The FY2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act funds the WFIRST program through September 2020. The FY2021 budget request proposes to terminate funding for the WFIRST mission and focus on the completion of the James Webb Space Telescope, now planned for launch in March 2021. The Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar telescope until Webb has been successfully launched and deployed.”  (That March 2021 date will likely be pushed back because of interruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.)

Will Congress nonetheless allocate money for fiscal 2021 to continue development of the Roman Space Telescope?

It’s unclear in this era of coronavirus and skyrocketing budget deficits.  But if they don’t allocate funds, the project will implode since the many scientists, engineers and other technicians involved will have to find new work.  Big NASA missions, it is often said, move like an army, and can fall apart if even temporarily disbanded.

WFIRST (now the Roman Space Telescope)n field of view versus that of Hubble. WFIRST’s camera is just as sensitive as the Hubble Space Telescope’s, but with a field of view 100 times bigger. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Roman Space Telescope may some day be known for its powerful scientific capabilities, but thus far the project has been defined by this dizzying history.  And there’s more:

At the center of the mission is a 2.4 meter space telescope the size of the Hubble Space Telescope that was made in the late 1990s and early 2000s for the National Reconnaissance Office, an arm of American intelligence.

NRO, which runs a classified program often described as producing more sophisticated technology than NASA, decided in 2012 that it had no use for the telescope because the major space intelligence program it was built for had proven unsuccessful.   So the mirror, of the power and quality of the Hubble, was donated to NASA.

Although the telescope mirror was considered obsolete by the NRO,  it was nevertheless state-of-the art for NASA — powerful and unused.  And NRO had not only one spare amazing telescope mirror, actually had two of them.

The original WFIRST concept — which was selected by the National Academies of Science as its top choice for a major new observatory for the 2020s  — focused primarily on dark matter, Einsteinian relativity and the expansion of the universe.  After the NRO mirror was donated, an exoplanet component was added  with the inclusion of an internal coronagraph, which blocks out the luminosity of a host star so orbiting exoplanets can be identified.

Today’s Roman Space Telescope has also been designed to use gravitational microlensing as an exoplanet hunting tool.  Microlensing is an observational effect that was predicted in 1936 by Einstein as part of his General Theory of Relativity. Light travels in a straight line but if space-time is bent — which happens near something massive, like a star — light follows the curve.

A schematic illustration of how gravitational microlensing works — making otherwise hidden exoplanets visible around a star when a background star illuminates the gravitational effects curving space-time.

Any time two stars align closely from our vantage point, light from the more distant star curves as it travels through the warped space-time of the nearer star. This phenomenon and Einstein predictions was famously confirmed by British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington during a total solar eclipse in 1919. If the alignment is especially close, the nearer star acts like a natural cosmic lens, focusing and intensifying light from the background star.

When one star in the sky appears to pass nearly in front of another, the light rays of the background source star become bent due to the gravitational “attraction” of the foreground star, creating virtual magnifying glass.

With these planet-finding capabilities, plus the ability to see broad swaths of the sky, the Roman Space Telescope will help expand the on-going census of exoplanets — a top NASA priority.

“Trying to interpret planet populations today is like trying to interpret a picture with half of it covered,” said Matthew Penny, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge who led a study to predict WFIRST’s microlensing survey capabilities.

“To fully understand how planetary systems form we need to find planets of all masses at all distances. No one technique can do this, but WFIRST’s microlensing survey, combined with the results from Kepler and TESS, will reveal far more of the picture.”

This NASA Goddard Space Flight Center video goes into more detail about what the Roman Space Telescope will do, and how it will do it.

Nancy Grace Roman (1925-2018), NASA’s first chief astronomer, is known as the ‘Mother of Hubble.’ In a time when women were discouraged from studying math and science, Roman became a research astronomer and was instrumental in taking NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope from an idea to reality and establishing NASA’s program of space-based astronomical observatories.
Here, Roman explains the Advanced Orbiting Solar Observatory to astronaut Buzz Aldrin in 1965 in Washington. (NASA)

Trained in astronomy at a time that the field was largely dismissive of women, Nancy Grace Roman persisted and did some important research in her early days as an astronomer.

In 1959, in the earliest days of NASA, she was hired to set up and manage a space astronomy program at the agency and became the first female NASA executive and decision-maker. Soon after she became Chief of Astronomy in NASA’s Office of Space Science.

For the next twenty years she evaluated pretty much alone innumerable proposed missions, and set into motion projects that became pioneering NASA missions.  All during this time she worked towards the day when a large and powerful NASA telescope would be sent into orbit, an idea in the astronomy community since the 1940s.

That telescope finally launched in 1991 as the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.  Because of her years of advocacy and success (and yes, a few failures) developing smaller space telescopes, she is often called the “mother of the Hubble.”  It was a description she became uncomfortable with because, as she said, so many others played major roles, but it has stuck with her anyway.

Her legacy is vast, and includes such important policies as making sure NASA space science missions were designed for the good of the astronomy community rather than for individuals or specific institutions,  winning over operators of ground-based telescopes to the potential of space-based ones, and tirelessly advocating for and sending into space new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe.   She continued being active in the field after leaving NASA for personal reasons, and died in 2018.

A most formidable woman, she excelled at making sure that important things were accomplished in NASA space science.  Not a woman for whom a major space telescope project should be named only to be ultimately cancelled.