Press Release

Lead Appointed on Proposed Wide Field Space Telescope

By SpaceRef Editor
November 14, 2014
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The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) has appointed Dr. Roeland van der Marel to lead its work on a proposed NASA space telescope that will provide images as sharp as the Hubble Space Telescope, but over a hundred times larger area. The space observatory, called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope-Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (WFIRST-AFTA), is being studied for launch in the mid-2020s, pending program approval by NASA.

The telescope will be used to probe the distribution of dark matter, which is most of the matter in the universe, and the characteristics of dark energy, a repulsive force that is pushing the universe apart at an ever-faster rate. The telescope will also be used to measure the abundance and characteristics of planets orbiting other stars. As a general-purpose observatory with a large survey program, it will also yield fundamental progress in many other astrophysical subjects.

STScI is presently the science operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope and the science and mission operations center for the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018.

“WFIRST-AFTA will produce large-scale maps of the night sky at the highest resolution we have ever had. Our Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) already holds the astronomical data from some 20 astronomy missions. The addition of the enormous WFIRST-AFTA dataset would add considerably to its scientific discovery potential,” STScI Director Matt Mountain said.

A wide-field infrared survey telescope was the highest-ranked large space mission recommended by the National Academy of Science’s 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. WFIRST-AFTA would fulfill this recommendation. The heart of the proposed telescope is already built. It features a 2.4-meter-diameter mirror (the same size as Hubble’s mirror), which was donated to NASA in 2012 by the United States National Reconnaissance Office.

WFIRST-AFTA will have a wide-field, near-infrared imaging camera and also a visible-light coronagraph, an instrument specially designed for studying planets orbiting other stars. These instruments share many characteristics with instruments on Hubble and the Webb telescope, with which STScI has extensive experience.

“We will be extremely excited to help the astronomical community use WFIRST-AFTA to further revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” van der Marel said. “The Hubble data and analysis tools provided by STScI have already enabled astronomers around the world to make many ground-breaking astronomical discoveries. Building on that experience at STScI will make WFIRST-AFTA a powerful complement to the Webb telescope, and will further expand our knowledge.”

Van der Marel earned a doctorate in astronomy in 1994 from Leiden University in the Netherlands and joined the STScI staff in 1997. He previously led teams dealing with the scientific operations of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and dealing with the structure, optics, and pointing of the Webb telescope. Van der Marel is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Van der Marel is an expert on black holes and the structure of galaxies. His research, which includes using the Hubble telescope to study galaxies, has contributed to the discovery that supermassive black holes exist in the centers of most galaxies. In 2005, he won the Pirelli International Award for developing an educational website that explains black holes to students and the public.

STScI is collaborating with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Maryland), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (La Canada Flintridge, California), the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (Pasadena, California), and other partners on preparations for the WFIRST-AFTA mission.

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
+1 410-338-4514

Images and more information about WFIRST:


STScI’s Brochure “Pushing Astronomy’s Bounds”

WFIRST Video Trailer on YouTube

Q&A Session about NASA’s WFIRST Mission:

SpaceRef staff editor.