On Wednesday, NASA announced it had selected SPHEREx as the newest space telescope mission to investigate the early evolution of the universe and measure the prevalence of the ingredients for life within the Milky Way galaxy.
The University of Arizona’s Elisabeth Krause, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, is a mission co-investigator. UA assistant professor of astronomy and physics Tim Eifler is a mission collaborator.
The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch or Reionization and Ices Explorer is a two-year mission that is expected to launch in 2023 and is funded at $242 million, not including launch costs.
The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena will lead the science team, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will manage the mission.
“It’s a new window on the sky,” Krause said. From earth orbit, SPHEREx will survey the entire night sky every six months, gathering spectra — the separation of the components of light often seen as a rainbow — of more than 300 million galaxies to generate a map of galaxies near and far. Scientists like Krause hope to learn more about the expansion rate of the universe with this information.
Krause developed methods to estimate in advance how well SPHEREx will measure the inflation of the universe, she said. Astronomers want to understand what made the universe expand at physics-defying speeds during the fraction of a nanosecond after the big bang before giving rise to the myriad of galaxies and larger structure of the universe we observe today.
SPHEREx will also analyze over 100 million stars in the Milky Way and map water and organic molecules in our galaxy’s stellar nurseries and planet-forming regions.
The mission will also identify potential targets of study by future missions such as NASA’s UA-involved James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope’s successor.
This is all possible because of new technology that allows on-board instruments to produce the highest color resolution of all sky maps.
“It will take a spectrum of everything it detects,” Krause said. “And because we’ve never had such a satellite before, it allows a lot of science on many different fronts.”
Krause said she is excited the data garnered from this mission will be made public, allowing more discoveries than those outlined in the funding application.
For more information on the mission, go to spherex.caltech.edu.