Trump's New NASA Budget Aims to Scrap Critical Telescope Project That Could Help Solve Dark Matter Mystery

Updated | A troubled NASA telescope designed to crack some of the biggest mysteries in our universe may be headed to the chopping block. That's according to a NASA document the agency posted publicly today that outlines its budget request as part of President Trump's administration for fiscal year 2019.

The document lays out a plan for getting people to the moon, transitioning the International Space Station to commercial entities, sending rovers to Mars and launching the James Webb Space Telescope. But another spacecraft, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, received a less happy verdict: The document calls for it to be canceled "due to its significant cost and higher priorities within NASA." The document adds that its funding should go to other astrophysics projects.

The telescope was due to launch in the mid-2020s, but there have been warning signs for the project, which has had major problems with cost control: estimates place its price tag at $3.9 billion, rather than the budgeted $2 billion. In October, an independent review team hired by NASA to check up on WFIRST concluded that the project was scientifically crucial, but that a whole lot of work had been done before major launch milestones had been reached. The report produced by the panel called for a "top-to-bottom cost-benefit assessment" for the project (which has since been completed).

But even with the grim recommendation, WFIRST didn't seem doomed. In December, NASA announced it was beginning nitty-gritty design work for the telescope.

02_12_nasa_wfirst_telescope An artist's representation of what WFIRST would look like at work. NASA

WFIRST was designed to study the sky in infrared radiation, the type of light that has wavelengths slightly longer than what our eyes can process. It is meant to hunt for exoplanets, discover new galaxies and potentially solve the longstanding mystery of how dark energy works.

That might sound like an eclectic mission, and it is one. WFIRST was designed around repurposing an existing telescope about as big as the Hubble Space Telescope. But two very different instruments would be attached to it. One lets it take photos covering 100 times as much sky per snapshot as Hubble. That huge camera means the telescope would be able to gather the staggering amount of detailed information about galaxy size, shape and location that astronomers think will be key to understanding how dark matter and dark energy shape the universe.

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And as a nifty bonus, the telescope will be able to spot distant exoplanets in the heart of the Milky Way, and its second instrument will be able to gather data about their atmospheres, which can tell scientists whether a planet is more like Neptune or Jupiter, for instance.

It's actually that nifty bonus the review team recommended the project ditch, arguing that would trim $400 million off WFIRST's pricetag while retaining the incredibly powerful telescope. At the time of the report, NASA still seemed committed to getting WFIRST off the ground, possibly with a smaller telescope base to cut costs. The new budget request suggests the agency has given up hope of salvaging the project without breaking the bank.

This story has been updated to clarify NASA's assessment of the project's progress and the agency's review of the project.

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