New mission given the go-ahead to search for beginning of universe and possibly life
A new space probe designed to observe hundreds of millions of galaxies to gain a better grasp on how the universe evolved has just been given the greenlight. This new spacecraft is also being developed to search for water and organics, the elements necessary for life as we know it.
Following a detailed review carried out by both NASA as well as independent scientists and engineers, the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) has been selected. SPHEREx was selected by NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program, with is currently scheduled for a 2023 launch.
In September of 2016, the program, which has been conducting cost-effective space missions for the study of astrophysics since 1958, issued a request for new proposals, which yielded nine submissions. Two of those were selected for further study in August 2017.
The $242 million all-sky spectral survey will utilize technologies pioneered for satellite studies of Earth and Mars to survey the entire sky every six months for two years in both optical and near-infrared light. It will collect data on more than 100 million stars in the Milky Way and over 300 million galaxies, some as old as ten billion years.
Its goals include probing the origin of the universe, studying the origin and history of galaxies, and researching the origin of water in planetary systems.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, noted SPHEREx will provide an unprecedented amount of data for the goals of answering questions about the early rapid expansion of the universe and whether water and organic molecules are present in star-forming regions and protoplanetary disks surrounding stars in the process of forming.
“This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers. 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?” he noted.
When complete, SPHEREx‘s sky map will reveal the whole sky in 96 color bands, all in much higher resolution than that of any previous sky maps. Its data will direct scientists to targets for observation with other next-generation observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will be capable of identifying the atmospheres of exoplanets, and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will search for exoplanets as well as study dark energy, the mysterious force that is accelerating the universe’s expansion.
JWST is scheduled for launch in 2021, and it is hoped that WFIRST will launch in the mid-2020s.
Since its 1958 founding, NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program has launched over 90 missions and is operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.