NASA's new mission will return on billions of years of cosmic history


Conceptual image of SPHEREx.
Picture: Caltech

A recently approved NASA mission, called SPHEREx, will use a space observatory to study the first conditions of the universe and look for the heavenly ingredients necessary for life.

Proposed in 2016, the Spectrophotometer for the History of the Universe, Reionization and Ice Explorer mission, or SPHEREx, was chosen by NASA from among eight other proposed missions because it "offered the best scientific potential and the most achievable development plan, "" In the words of the space agency. The Orbital Observatory will monitor space in visible light and near-infrared, providing "a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

The $ 242 million mission over two years (excluding start-up costs) could be operational as early as 2023. Caltech astronomer James Bock will be the lead investigator for the project. Other project partners include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Korea Institute of Astronomy and Space Science and Colorado's Ball's Aerospace.

SPHEREx will be used to analyze more than 300,000 galaxies, including those distant 10 billion light-years away. As a result, the observatory will look far into cosmological time, allowing astronomers to see the primitive universe. SPHEREx "will provide an unprecedented galactic map containing the" fingerprints "of the earliest moments in the history of the Universe," Zurbuchen said, adding that it would provide new clues to the event. one of the greatest mysteries of science: "What allowed the Universe to develop so quickly less than a nanosecond after the Big Bang?

Astronomers will also use SPHEREx to study the millions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. They will use it to search for the basic elements of life, such as water and organic molecules. Regions in which stars form from dense clouds of gas and dust will also be studied, as well as protoplanetary disks, where planets form around young stars.

SPHEREx will conduct space surveys every six months. This data will be used to create cosmos maps in 96 different color bands – much more than previous efforts. The mission will also carry out preparatory work for the use of future space telescopes, such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and the wide-field infrared surveyor telescope, by identifying candidate objects for more detailed observations.

David Sobral, an astrophysicist at Lancaster University, said he was "delighted" that NASA is moving forward with SPHEREx, claiming that it will help astronomers in their ongoing quest to understand the origin of the disease. Universe, galaxies and even water in the planets. systems.

"I think the fact that he's watching the whole sky, including the long wavelengths, and splitting the light into different wavelengths, will make fantastic, planned but probably surprising discoveries. , "Sobral told Gizmodo. "We will not be able to study in detail the hundreds of millions of galaxies, but also the light from even weaker sources, sometimes incredibly distant, that SPHEREx will be able to unveil and that will advance our understanding. from the universe very early. "

Sobral also appreciated the simplicity and careful design of the mission, which he said would "lead to fantastic science at very reduced costs".

Personally, I like the fact that SPHEREx provides four full sweeps of visible space during its mission of two years (at least). In addition to allowing comparative analyzes of the objects studied, the observatory will probably be used to corroborate data from other telescopes in case of unexpected celestial phenomena, such as a supernova explosion.

This mission seems exciting now, but we will really appreciate this effort once the data starts to flow, hopefully in just four years.

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