University of Arizona astronomers land NASA mission

About 60 years ago, the Space Race had the full attention of everyone from the United States to Cuba to the former Soviet Union. Countries were battling it out to see who could not only get to space first but also perform amazing feats such as orbiting, spacewalking, setting up satellites, and landing on the moon. Since then fascination around the final frontier has gone into a relative hyper-drive as everyone from billionaires to scientists to space theorists have come together to plan the next steps of space exploration.

One of the ideas that has come up is a new mission called Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer, or, simply, SPHEREx. The two-year, $242 million project, set to launch in 2023, will look to answer two important questions in the space community: how the universe evolved and how common some important building blocks of life are across the galaxy as we know it. To help answer those questions, NASA has recruited two University of Arizona astronomers—Elizabeth Krause, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, and Tim Eifler, assistant professor of astronomy and physics.

The project will look to expand the United States’ fleet of space-based missions set to shine a light on uncovering the mysteries of the universe. The SPHEREx instrument “will be able to map the spatial distribution of hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies, and search for emission from ice and other molecules in the Milky Way,” Krause said. “This is a very rich data set, which will be available to astronomers around the globe.”

SPHEREx can scan and filter data from 96 different wavelengths of light. It will map water and organic molecules, two important ingredients to life, naturally.

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

Krause will play the role of co-investigator and Eifler that of mission collaborator with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. According to Krause, SPHEREx will survey the entire night sky every six months looking for data to gather. Krause will focus on estimating how SPHEREx will measure the inflation of the universe as one component of the project includes how we can better understand what made the universe expand in nanoseconds.

“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.”

SPHEREx was chosen from nine proposals that were submitted to NASA’s astrophysics explorers program in September of 2016. In August of 2017, NASA selected two mission concepts for further study including SPHEREx.

Nick Esquer

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