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NASA selects new space-based telescopes

NASA has selected five proposals for its Explorers Program. These proposals are meant to conduct focused scientific investigations and develop instruments that fill the scientific gaps between the agency’s larger missions. The Explorers Program is designed to provide frequent flight opportunities for projects in the astrophysics and heliophysics science areas.

NASA NuSTAR mission in space NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

To be considered for this program, NASA has stated that these projects must be innovative, efficient and streamlined. Another factor in the Explorers Program is the requirement for public outreach and space science education.

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which recently discovered the most luminous galaxy in the Universe, is an example of an Explorer Program mission.

The selected mission fall into two categories. The first group of missions is the Astrophysics Small Explorer category. This category is focused on Principle Investigator (PI) led space science missions that seek to discover the origin, structure and ultimate destiny of our Universe. Additionally, the category also covers mission that search for Earth-like exoplanets. Three groups from NASA centers were selected with each being given $1 million to conduct their mission concept study. They must complete their initial work within eleven months.

SPHEREx is an All-Sky Near-Infrared Spectral Survey that will probe the origin of our Universe. Part of this includes exploring the origin and evolution of galaxies and whether planets around other stars could harbor life. James Bock is the principal investigator leading the mission from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Martin Weisskopf, principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will lead the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission. IXPE uses X-ray polarimetry, which is the measurement and interpretation of the polarization of electromagnetic waves, to improve our understanding of how X-ray emission is produced in objects such as neutron stars, pulsar wind nebulae, and stellar and supermassive black holes.

The final selection in this group is the Polarimeter for Relativistic Astrophysical X-ray Sources (PRAXyS). Keith Jahoda from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland is the principal investigator. PRAXyS uses X-ray polarimetry to characterize the geometry and behavior of X-ray sources including super-massive black holes, pulsars, magnetars, and supernovae.

The second group is known as “Missions of Opportunity”. As the name implies, these are missions that utilize existing infrastructure to conduct missions with non-NASA sponsors. The missions must be kept to a total cost to NASA of less than $55 million. Generally, these missions are on a no-exchange-of-funds basis, meaning the sponsoring company or group does not get paid for their services. These groups are to conduct eleven-month implementation concept study missions, with each receiving $250,000 to complete their work.

Christopher Walker, the principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, will lead for Gal/Xgal U/LDB Spectroscopic/Stratospheric THz Observatory (GUSTO). This system is a balloon-borne observatory looking for high-frequency radio emissions from the Milky Way galaxy and a nearby companion galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. GUSTO seeks to study the life cycle of interstellar material.

Adrian Lee of the University of California at Berkeley will be the principal investigator for U.S. Participation in the LiteBIRD Cosmic Microwave Background Polarization Survey. The Japanese LiteBIRD mission will map polarized fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, or the leftover thermal radiation from the Big Bang, to search for the signature of gravitational waves from inflation, potentially shedding light on the universe a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. The United States will contribute to the payload on board.

Small Explorer mission costs are capped at $125 million each, excluding the launch vehicle, and Mission of Opportunity costs are capped at $65 million each. The proposals were selected based on potential science value and feasibility of development plans. A down selection process to one of each group will occur before 2017. The selected missions will then begin construction and launch. It is possible that these flights may occur as early as 2020.

“The Explorers Program brings out some of the most creative ideas for missions to help unravel the mysteries of the Universe,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters. “The program has resulted in great missions that have returned transformational science, and these selections promise to continue that tradition.”



Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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