Future space observatory named after NASA pioneer Nancy Grace Roman

On May 20, NASA announced that the space telescope known as WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope) will be renamed to highlight the contributions to astrophysics made by Nancy Grace Roman. The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, or simply the Roman Space Telescope, will study the Universe in infrared light, paying special attention to the fields of exoplanets and cosmology.

Artist’s rendition of NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.


Who is Nancy Grace Roman?    

Nancy Grace Roman is an American astrophysicist specialised in stellar astronomy and the study of the movement of stars. Born in Nashville in 1925, she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1949, a time when very few women were involved in scientific research.   

Nancy Grace Roman in her NASA office in the 1960s. Credit: NASA.

She joined NASA in 1959, when the organisation was still quite young. She was in charge of their observational astronomy division. In 1960, she became the Chief of Astronomy at NASA’s Office of Space Science as well as the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA.   

She dedicated her career to space observatories, working to convince NASA and the U.S. Congress on the importance of space astronomy. Thanks to these career-long efforts, she is considered the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.     

The Roman Space Telescope  

The Roman Telescope is optimised for observing in infrared light, a type of light invisible to the human eye that allows us to peer through clouds of cosmic dust. Equipped with a 2.4-metre mirror, like the Hubble Space Telescope, it will have a field of view 100 times larger, allowing it to observe huge areas of the sky simultaneously.    

The Roman Telescope will have a field of view 100 times larger than Hubble’s. Credit: NASA.

The NASA mission, proposed in early 2010 and in development since 2016, will be launched in the mid-2020s. It will be in orbit around the Lagrange 2 point, 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, which is the same location as the future James Webb Space Telescope.

With two instruments on board, the Roman Telescope will contribute to many areas of astrophysics, including the study of the expansion of the Universe, of dark energy and of exoplanets.   

At the Institute for Research on Exoplanets  

iREx researchers are eager to see the Roman Space Telescope in action. Equipped with a new type of coronagraphic system, it will be able to search for and image giant gas planets.  

It will also have great synergy with the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2021. The Roman Telescope’s wide field of view will allow the discovery of a multitude of interesting objects that will then be studied in greater detail by the Webb Telescope equipped with a much bigger 6.5-metre telescope.   

iREx members are trilled that this major future space observatory is named in honour of Nancy Grace Roman. They recognise her role as a pioneer who led breakthroughs in many areas of study including that of exoplanets. As early as 1959 — almost four decades before the first exoplanet was detected — she wrote an article about planets around other stars and the possibility of finding them… using a space telescope!   

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