A new simulation of millions of galaxies has shown just how powerful the future Nancy Grace (Roman) space telescope will be when it opens its eyes to the universe.
NASA says the telescope will turn back the “cosmic clock” and allow astronomers to see space in ways they’ve never seen before. This should help scientists understand how the universe evolved from a sea of dense particles into the cosmos we see today full of stars and galaxies.
Scheduled to launch no earlier than May 2027, Roman’s power to revolutionize astronomy lies in the fact that it will have the ability to capture vast regions of space in a single image. As a startling example of this increased observing power, the simulation shows how in just 63 days Roman can image an amount of sky that would take the Hubble Space Telescope 85 years capture.
The real benefit of the Roman Nancy Grace Space Telescope will be felt when paired with its fellow space telescopes, with Hubble able to see a wider spectrum of light and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) offering deeper observations.
Related: What is the Roman Nancy Grace Space Telescope?
“The Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes are optimized for studying astronomical objects at depth and up close, so they’re like looking at the universe through pinholes,” said the leader of a study describing the simulation and the postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. in Greenbelt, Maryland, Aaron Yung, said in a NASA statement (opens in a new tab). “To solve large-scale cosmic mysteries, we need a space telescope that can provide a much wider view. That’s exactly what Roman is designed to do.”
The simulation created by Yung and the team shows a patch of sky measuring 2 square degrees, which is 10 times the apparent size of the full moon in the night sky. In this plot of simulated space, more than 5 million galaxies are represented.
The same simulation can model tens of millions of galaxies in less than a day, which would take years with more conventional methods. When Roman launches and reaches an operational state, researchers can then take his observations and compare them to the simulation, helping them unravel some of the universe’s greatest mysteries.
This could include studying the nature of dark energy – the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe – and dark matter, the substance that is almost completely invisible despite making up about 85% of matter in the cosmos.
How Roman will study dark matter and dark energy
Galaxies and the clusters they sometimes form grow into “clusters” throughout the universe that are connected by invisible threads of dark matter. The galaxies are positioned along these dark matter filaments at the points where they intersect. Between these strands are huge cosmic voids.
This creates a tapestry of the universe with a web-like structure spanning hundreds of millions of light-years that can only be seen with an incredibly wide view. Yet this image would be very different for astronomers if they could see it as it appeared much earlier in the 13.7 billion year history of the universe.
Rewinding cosmic time would reveal the early universe as a uniform primordial sea of plasma composed of charged particles with overly dense plates that would collapse under their own gravity to give birth to the first stars over hundreds of millions of years. Attracted by the gravitational attraction of dark matter, these first stars would then group together into galaxies which would then evolve to be populated by planetary systems like our solar system.
Roman will be able to come back to the different stages of this progression as the universe began to take shape. Because the gravitational influence of dark matter helps determine the distribution of galaxies, watching it help form the first galaxies could shed light on the nature of this mysterious form of matter as it plays its role as a “column invisible backbone” of the universe. On a smaller scale, this back in time could also allow astronomers to see the effect of dark matter as it forms invisible halos around early galaxies, revealing how they individually evolve.
Roman will also allow astronomers to rewind the recent accelerated expansion of the universe to learn more about dark energy, the force driving this expansion.
“Most of the capabilities of the Roman Nancy Grace Telescope will make it a suitable instrument for studying the nature of dark energy,” said Luz Ángela García, postdoctoral researcher in cosmology at ECCI University in Bogotá, Colombia. recently told Space.com. “Due to its wide coverage of the sky, the telescope will capture an unprecedented image number of galaxies in its field of view and the distribution of these galaxies in our universe, which will allow us to understand the effect of dark energy on large cosmological scales and the clustering and evolution of galaxies.”
NASA points out that Roman’s vast celestial surveys will be able to map the universe up to a thousand times faster than Hubble, with the telescope moving rapidly from observation target to observation target.
“Roman will take approximately 100,000 photos each year,” Goddard research astrophysicist Jeffrey Kruk said in a NASA statement. “Given Roman’s wider field of view, it would take longer than our lifetimes for even powerful telescopes like Hubble or Webb to cover that much sky.”
Early Life as the Wide Field Infrared Telescope (WFIRST) Roman was renamed in May 2020 to honor Nancy Grace Roman, a pioneering scientist who served as NASA’s first Chief Astronomer from 1961 to 1963.
Roman, who passed away on December 26, 2018 at the age of 93, was affectionately known as “the mother of Hubble”, a nickname she earned due to her tireless advocacy for new tools that would allow astronomers to study the wider universe. This push would eventually lead to the launch of the The Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.
The simulation showing the observing power of the Roman telescope is available for Download here. (opens in a new tab) An article dealing with the simulation was published in December in the journal Royal Astronomical Society Monthly Notices (opens in a new tab).
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