NASA announces new mission to probe the universe


Project will hunt for post-Big Bang clues and look for water closer to home. Andrew Masterson reports.


An artist's impression of NASA's still-to-be-built SHPEREx satellite.

An artist's impression of NASA's still-to-be-built SHPEREx satellite.

Caltech

NASA has announced a new mission to probe the evolution of the universe and hunt for the presence of water and organic molecules in the Milky Way.

Construction is set to commence on an uncrewed craft known, officially, as the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer, or, more conveniently, SPHEREx.

Launch is scheduled to take place at some point in 2023, and the mission is planned to last for two years. Estimated construction cost, excluding launch, is $242 million.

Once in position, SPHEREx will survey an estimated 300 million galaxies, using both optical and near-infrared light, including some so far away that their light has taken around 10 billion years to reach Earth.

The focus on extremely distant star clusters reflects a key mission objective.

“This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers,” says Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

“It will deliver an unprecedented galactic map containing 'fingerprints' from the first moments in the universe's history. And we'll have new clues to one of the greatest mysteries in science: What made the universe expand so quickly less than a nanosecond after the Big Bang?”

During its two-year operation, the craft will complete four surveys of the entire sky, creating maps using 96 different colour bands.

The information gleaned will help astronomers identify specific targets for two other soon-to-be-launched missions, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Wide Field Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

The SPHEREx mission had its genesis in a very high concept competition. In 2016, NASA’s long-running Astrophysics Explorers Program (AEP) called for proposals for new survey missions. Nine were submitted and after detailed review, a winner was chosen.

Although largely an American project, the mission will include scientists and equipment provided by the Korea Astronomy & Space Science Institute in Daejeon, South Korea.

  1. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/webb/main/index.html
  2. https://www.nasa.gov/wfirst
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