At a glance
- The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, or Roman Space Telescope (RST) for short, is a planned mission understand dark matter and to search for and directly image exoplanets, worlds that orbit other stars.
- The mission builds on previous exoplanet-hunting space telescopes and will finish our initial census of other solar systems.
- The Trump administration has tried and failed to cancel RST in its last 3 budget requests. You can help The Planetary Society advocate to make the mission happen.
Why do we need the Roman Space Telescope?
Thirty years ago, we couldn't even say for certain that exoplanets—planets around other stars—existed. Now, we know of more than 4,000, thanks in large part to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which taught us that most stars in our galaxy have their own solar systems. Kepler found mostly large planets around dim stars. TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is building on Kepler's survey work by hunting for smaller planets around brighter stars.
Now it's time to complete the initial galactic exoplanet census by searching for even smaller, Earth-sized, rocky worlds. NASA's tool to accomplish that is the Roman Space Telescope (RST), which will help us learn how unique our own solar system is, and bring us closer to finding an Earth-like planet that could support life as we know it.
What's in a name?
Though originally referred to as the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), NASA renamed the mission in 2020 after Nancy Grace Roman, NASA's first chief astronomer. Roman, who died in 2018, set up a committee of astronomers and engineers in the 1960s to envision how in-space telescopes could revolutionize scientific research. Those efforts eventually led to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Roman Space Telescope will launch in the mid-2020s on a 5-year mission to survey 100 million stars and find 2,500 new exoplanets. Many will be rocky, Earth-size worlds. RST will also use a light-blocking disc called a coronagraph to directly image select planets, uncovering these worlds’ compositions for the very first time. Only a handful of exoplanets have been imaged to date.
More than just exoplanets
The Roman Space Telescope is also an astrophysics mission that will help scientists search for dark energy, a mysterious force that may be causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. RST will study dark energy by mapping the distribution of matter in the cosmos and measuring how the universe has expanded over time.
How the Roman Space Telescope will search for exoplanets
RST's camera is just as sensitive as the Hubble Space Telescope's, but with a field of view 100 times bigger. That means no matter what RST is looking at, it will be able to collect a lot more data at one time.
Roman vs. Hubble Field of View This video shows the field of view difference between the Hubble Space Telescope and Roman Space Telescope. Roman’s images will have the resolution of Hubble but cover an area 100 times wider.Video: NASA / L. Hustak (STScI)
The telescope will search for exoplanets using an extraordinary technique called microlensing. You can think of microlensing as Einstein's magnifying glass: planets, stars, and galaxies have such immense gravity fields, they can actually bend and magnify the light from other objects behind them, producing dramatic halos in space.
When one star crosses in front of another as seen from Earth, the light from the background star is bent and magnified around the foreground star. If that foreground star has planets around it, they will bend and magnify the background starlight further, producing spikes in the amount of light we see from Earth. Scientists will examine survey images from RST to look for these microlensing events, allowing them to detect even small, rocky exoplanets.
RST will also examine certain individual stars using a light-blocking disc called a coronagraph. Because exoplanets are millions of times dimmer than their host stars, trying to image them directly is like taking a picture of a firefly next to a spotlight. A coronagraph blocks the host star's light, allowing us to see exoplanets directly. This seven-year timelapse of exoplanets orbiting a star called HR 8799 was made possible by a coronagraph:
The Roman Space Telescope will be able to detect some of the light wavelengths coming from the exoplanets it directly images. This will tell scientists more about the composition of the exoplanets' atmospheres. It will work best on Jupiter-size planets, meaning we probably won't be able to peer into the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets. However, RST's coronagraph is specifically meant to test coronagraph technology for future missions. Scientists have proposed using giant star shades to block the light from stars so perfectly that we can directly image Earth-size planets to look for signs of life.
What you can do to support the Roman Space Telescope
Despite being the astrophysics community's highest-priority mission this decade, the Trump administration has tried 3 times to cancel the mission, citing a lack of funding. Fortunately, Congress rejected those proposals the past 2 years, though it must do so again for 2021. The Planetary Society has submitted a statement urging Congress in January 2020 to continue funding the mission.
Three ways you can be a space advocate
- Sign up for The Downlink, our weekly toolkit that contains news, announcements, and actions you can take to support space science and exploration.
- Take our Space Advocacy 101 course to learn the inner works of NASA, how Congress develops space legislation, and how to engage with your elected officials.
- Share this page with a friend, spread the word on social media, and tell others about the importance of knowing the cosmos and our place within it.
You can also support The Planetary Society’s exoplanets research. To find more Earth-like exoplanets, we need new, revolutionary technologies. Since 2009, Planetary Society members have supported work by Debra Fischer, one of the world's top exoplanet researchers. These projects have greatly improved our ability to search for Earth-like exoplanets. Right now you can help Fischer search for 100 Earth-like exoplanets by funding equipment that sounds straight out of science fiction!
Since 2009, Planetary Society members have supported work by Debra Fischer, one of the world's top exoplanet researchers. These projects have greatly improved our ability to search for Earth-like exoplanets.