SXSW: NASA to explore dark energy, exoplanets with new telescope

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Speakers from NASA, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and the Space Telescope Science Institute talked at South by Southwest on Tuesday about the new WFIRST telescope. Specifically, they discussed using the telescope to study how the mysterious force dark energy is causing the universe to expand and to discover new planets and alien life.

The WFIRST telescope, originally used by the United States for spying, was recently donated to NASA by the Department of Homeland Security. The telescope is currently being tweaked by NASA engineers for use in space. Once completed, the telescope will boast a field of vision one hundred times larger than that of the Hubble telescope while maintaining the same image clarity.

Jason Rhodes of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said that scientists will use the telescope to study dark matter and dark energy. Dark energy, which makes up 68 percent of the universe, is the name that scientists give to the misunderstood force responsible for the universe expanding limitlessly. Dark energy also acts as a repulsive force for objects in the universe, causing galaxies to move farther from each other. Dark matter, on the other hand, makes up 27 percent of the universe and acts as an attractive force in a push-pull relationship with dark energy. In billions of years, these forces and the accelerated expansion of the universe and may lead to the end of the universe in what scientists call the “Big Rip.”

“Dark energy will eventually result in the Big Rip and as the universe expands faster… the fabric of space time is ripped apart,” Rhodes said.

Before that happens, researchers will use WFIRST to study dark matter and dark energy in three ways: they will measure the shapes and growths of galaxies to map dark matter, they will find the positions of galaxies to construct a “cosmic standard ruler” with which to study the universe’s expansion and they will discover supernovae to estimate the distance between galaxies.

Researchers will also use the telescope to search for exoplanets, or planets residing outside of our solar system, and other life forms. Margaret Turnbull of the SETI Institute said they will start by looking at the brightest and closest exoplanets.

“We may be one of a billion in habitable worlds in the galaxy and the universe, but everything we look at is unique,” Turnbull said. “No two stars are the same, no two planets are the same.”

Rhodes said that he hopes the WFIRST telescope will help astrophysicists gain a better understanding of the universe.

“We’re look at one of the most important and perplexing questions in all of science,” Rhodes said. “That is, what is the universe made of? How will the universe evolve in the future, and how will the universe end?”