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Origins of the Universe to Be Examined by NASA’s Newest Sky Scanner


NASA’s new mission to help astronomers gain further insight into the origins and the evolution of our universe, as well as search for life ingredients in the Milky Way’s planetary systems, will launch in 2023. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) will function for two years and is funded at $242 million, excluding launch costs.


"I'm really excited about this new mission," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Not only does it expand the United States' powerful fleet of space-based missions dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of the universe, it is a critical part of a balanced science program that includes missions of various sizes."


Scanning the sky in both optical and near-infrared light, SPHEREx will obtain data on more than 100 million stars in our own galaxy, and more than 300 million galaxies, some so distant that their light has taken 10 billion years to reach Earth. In the Milky Way, SPHEREx will examine regions where stars form from gas and stellar dust, and locations where new planets may be forming, searching for water and organic molecules, which are a prerequisite for life.


"This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for 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?"


The new instrument will survey the entire sky every six months, creating a sky map in 96 color bands, surpassing color resolution of the previous maps. The data gathered should also be useful for future studies, such as that with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the launch of which is currently scheduled for 2021.


SPHEREx was chosen out of nine mission proposals by NASA's Astrophysics Explorers Program, which has launched more than 90 missions since its inception in 1958. It will be a collaboration between Caltech University in Pasadena, California, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will develop the mission payload and manage the mission. Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, will provide spacecraft and mission integration, and the Korea Astronomy & Space Science Institute in Daejeon, Korea, will contribute test equipment and science analysis.


Picture credit: Caltech