White dwarf, a type 1a supernovae occur roughly once every 500 years in the Milky Way.

A new space telescope designed to search for exoplanets and do groundbreaking cosmology is set to deploy by 2027. A University of Hawaiʻi astronomer is co-leading a team that was recently awarded $11 million to develop critical tools for NASA’s trailblazing Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (Roman). The telescope will focus on the search for planets as well as aim to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore infrared astrophysics.

David Rubin, an assistant professor in the UH Department of Physics and Astronomy, and his team will design software needed to process observations of thousands of supernovae or exploding stars that Roman is expected to discover, helping to measure and explain how the universe has expanded and evolved. The telescope’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) in diameter—the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror; however, each image will capture an area more than 100 times larger and in less time.

Telescope in space
Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope

“Roman will revolutionize our understanding of the universe with its unprecedented volume and quality of data. But with all that data comes strict requirements on the accuracy of the software. That makes for an exciting project, but it is also intimidating,” said Rubin.

Roman is expected to peer farther into space than ever before and will rely on Rubin’s team, co-led by Dan Scolnic (Duke University), Rebekah Hounsell (NASA Goddard) and Ben Rose (Baylor University), to create a suite of tools to process the raw data collected by the telescope. Co-investigator David Jones, an assistant astronomer at UH Institute for Astronomy will also contribute to the enormous tasks of building the data processing tools and the supernova analysis pipelines in advance of the mission’s start.

Roman’s primary camera, the Wide-Field Instrument, will measure light from a billion galaxies throughout the course of its lifetime. The team will make improvements to NASA’s latest software that calibrates the data at the level of individual pixels, to pipelines for measuring the brightnesses of objects and how they change throughout time. They are tasked with ensuring Roman can make the highest-precision measurements possible.

Monitoring on Maunakea

Rubin’s team will also produce model catalogs of supernovae that the mission is expected to observe, to develop and test the software. Observations from Roman will pinpoint these supernovae; however, as with many space missions, the best science requires adding other kinds of data from ground-based telescopes.

The Subaru Telescope on Maunakea will be used to provide additional monitoring of the Roman sky, and detailed spectra of the most interesting targets to provide insight into their properties.

“I’m most excited about the possibility of real-time overlap with the big optical imagers (which would increase the cadence and wavelength range of the survey) and highly multiplexed spectroscopy with the new Subaru Prime-Focus Spectrograph,” explained Rubin. “Subaru is pretty unique and is a strong justification for having a large amount of the survey visible from the northern hemisphere.”

UH technology has experience with historic telescopes

In December 2021, NASA launched its unprecedented James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the world’s premier space science observatory. On board JWST are 16 near-infrared sensors known as HAWAII-2RGs, enabling it to capture near-infrared light from deep space, far surpassing the capability of NASA’s Hubble.

The sensors were developed and tested at IfA and on Maunakea. These sensors are the culmination of years of research and development by UH scientists and engineers. Early prototypes were developed and tested by UH astronomers Don Hall, Klaus Hodapp and Doug Simons, along with IfA instrumentation engineer Shane Jacobson.