Nasa launching new 'SPHEREx' mission to find the origins of the universe

Space telescope will also search the sky in the hope of finding the ingredients for life

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 14 February 2019 14:29
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NASA's Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission is targeted to launch in 2023
NASA's Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission is targeted to launch in 2023

Nasa is launching a brand new space mission that could solve two of the deepest questions about the universe.

The launch could help astronomers understand how our universe evolved in the first place and how common the ingredients for life are within it.

The mission is named the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) will last for two years, cost nearly $250 million and is expected to launch in 2023.

“I’m really excited about this new mission,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “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.”

The announcement that Nasa had chosen the new mission came almost immediately after it said that its Mars exploration work using the Opportunity rover had come to an end, because the trundling robot has died. The new project was chosen as one of nine proposed to Nasa.

SPHEREx will look out at the sky, surveying the optical as well as near-infrared light. That light is invisible to the human eye but is a useful tool for exploring the universe: it will give astronomers a look at more than 300 million galaxies, as well as 100 million stars in our Milky Way.

"This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “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?”

To answer those questions, SPHEREx will look out at all those galaxies, some of which are so far away that the light reaching us has taken 10 billion years to travel through the universe. It will hunt out water and organic molecules in the hope that we can understand where – and how often – those ingredients for life occur throughout the cosmos.

It will also look out to create map of the entire sky, in 96 different colour bands. That will be a far more detailed colour resolution than previous all-sky maps, and will offer hints that other equipment like the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope can follow up on.

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