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Ground system for NASA’s Roman space telescope completes major review

(24 July 2020 - STScI) When it launches in the mid-2020s, NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will create enormous space panoramas of unprecedented detail.

The mission’s wide field of view will enable scientists to conduct sweeping cosmic surveys, yielding a wealth of information about celestial realms from our solar system to the edge of the observable universe.

Roman has just successfully completed a preliminary design review of the mission’s ground systems, including the Science Operations Center that will be hosted by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. This means the plan for science operations has met all of the design, schedule, and budget requirements. The mission will now proceed to the next phase: building the newly designed systems that will enable planning and scheduling of Roman observations and managing the resulting data.

ground 1

(courtesy: NASA)

“We’re excited to complete this latest milestone in the Roman Space Telescope mission,” said Kenneth Sembach, director of STScI. “We expect the flood of data that Roman will produce to revolutionize our understanding of many different areas of astrophysics. Roman will also change the way we perform scientific analyses. We’ll need to develop new tools and analysis methods to extract scientific insights from such a huge volume of data.”

In its role as Science Operations Center, STScI will plan, schedule, and carry out observations, process and archive mission datasets, and engage and inform the astronomical community and the public. STScI will collaborate closely with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the mission; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is developing the Coronagraphic Instrument; and IPAC/Caltech, which provides science support for the Coronagraphic Instrument and elements of the Wide Field Instrument as the observatory’s Science Support Center.

Big Data

Roman will survey the sky in infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes. It will have the same resolution in near-infrared wavelengths as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, but will capture a field of view about 100 times larger. As a result, scientists expect the telescope to collect more data than any of NASA’s other astrophysics missions.

Hubble has gathered 172 terabytes of data since its launch in 1990. Roman will gather data about 500 times faster than Hubble, adding up to 20,000 terabytes (20 petabytes) over the course of its five-year primary mission. At that rate, if Roman’s data were printed out and the pages were piled up, the stack would tower 330 miles (530 kilometers) high after a single day. By the end of Roman’s primary mission, the stack would reach 2.5 times farther than the Moon.

Data Accessibility

Such a vast volume of information will require new processing and archival techniques. Scientists will access and analyze Roman’s data using cloud-based remote services and more sophisticated tools than those used by previous missions.

“We’re bringing software to the data rather than bringing the data to your software on your laptop,” explained Karoline Gilbert, mission scientist for the Roman Science Operations Center at STScI.

All of the data collected by the Roman Space Telescope will be held in the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at STScI. Those data will be publicly available within days of the observations – a first for a NASA astrophysics flagship mission. This is significant because Roman’s colossal images will often contain far more than just the primary target of observation.

Since scientists everywhere will have rapid access to the data, they will be able to quickly discover short-lived phenomena, such as supernovae explosions. Prompt notification will allow other telescopes to perform follow-up observations.

The Science of the Roman Space Telescope

Roman will contribute to advances across the field of astrophysics. It will investigate new dwarf planets, comets, and asteroids in our solar system. It will image stars throughout our own galaxy, measuring its structure, and finding telltale signs of smaller galaxies torn apart by interactions with the Milky Way. Roman will also survey the birthplaces of stars, giant nurseries of gas and dust which Roman’s large field of view will be able to fully image at high resolution for the first time.

Roman’s remarkable speed at gathering data will also yield new insights into galaxies throughout the universe. By staring deeply at wide swaths of apparently blank sections of sky, Roman will image an unprecedented number of galaxies with high resolution. Roman will image large clusters of galaxies, characterize the dark matter around them, and discover thousands of galaxies at very high redshifts, which will provide the tools to study how galaxies change over cosmic time.

Roman’s surveys will deliver new insights into the history and structure of the universe, including the mysterious "dark energy" that is making space itself expand faster and faster. This powerful new observatory will also build on the broad foundation of work begun with Hubble and other observatories on planets outside our solar system. It will discover thousands of exoplanets using its wide-field camera and study the atmospheres of giant gaseous planets orbiting other stars with a sophisticated technology demonstration coronagraph.

“With its incredibly fast survey speeds, Roman will observe planets by the thousands, galaxies by the millions, and stars by the billions,” said Gilbert. “These vast datasets will allow us to resolve cosmic mysteries that hint at new fundamental physics.”

The Space Telescope Science Institute is expanding the frontiers of space astronomy by hosting the science operations center of the Hubble Space Telescope, the science and operations center for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the science operations center for the future Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. STScI also houses the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) which is a NASA-funded project to support and provide to the astronomical community a variety of astronomical data archives, and is the data repository for the Hubble, Webb, Kepler, K2, TESS missions, and more.