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March 17, 2016

Back in 2012, Christmas came a little early for NASA. In June, the National Reconnaissance Office gave the agency two space telescopes, each with a main mirror as big as that on Hubble Space Telescope. It took some time for the space agency to figure out what to do with the telescopes. But this year, it’s finalizing plans for one of them: It’ll study dark energy, the earliest galaxies, and planets in other star systems.

The mission is known as WFIRST — the Wide-Field InfraRed Space Telescope. It’ll take advantage of the fact that the would-be spy telescope has a much wider field of view than Hubble, allowing it to see an area of sky a hundred times larger.

With that expansive view, WFIRST will look at a billion galaxies across the cosmos. Precise measurements of the location and motion of these galaxies will allow astronomers to measure changes in dark energy over the eons. Dark energy is causing the universe to expand faster as it ages, but so far, it’s not certain what dark energy really is.

The telescope also will look at galaxies in the very early universe to learn more about the birth of the first stars.

And WFIRST will carry a special instrument to block out the light of a star. That will allow the telescope to probe the space around a star for planets — and even to take pictures of the planets.

Scientists and engineers are looking at another way to use WFIRST to take pictures of planets, and we’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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