Lockheed Martin is building tools to help NASA with the hunt for data and more direct evidence of dark energy, the force physicists believe to be behind the universe’s accelerating expansion. The aerospace giant is developing a system of instruments that, if selected for production, will comprise the core tools installed on the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which aims not only to reveal hundreds of millions more stars, but to help study the underlying physics that power them.
The WFIRST telescope is NASA’s latest astrophysics program. Lockheed Martin’s toolset, dubbed the Wide-Field Optical-Mechanical Assembly, was chosen (in part) because it builds off the success of the earlier Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), also built at the Lockheed Martin’s Palo Alto-based Advanced Technology Center. The NIRCam array was the principle optics device on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Dark energy, not to be confused with dark matter, is required for current models of the universe’s energy expenditure to add up. It explains measurements, first taken in the 1990s, that suggest the expansion of the universe isn’t only not slowing but rather accelerating, as evidenced by measuring the distance between supernovae and their cosmological redshift (an increase in the wavelength of the light from the supernova that indicates it is moving further away), in accordance with Hubble’s law. While theorized to be a relatively low-strength force, it dominates the universe as it is present uniformly across space, unlike other observed forms of energy.
The WFIRST platform is expected to deliver incredible data on some of the furthest conceivable reaches of space – and likely some very pretty starscapes, as well.