Saturday, December 9, 2023

NASA selects SpaceX to launch the SPHEREx space telescope

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, already has a number of lucrative contracts with NASA thanks to its reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The agency has just awarded SpaceX another cargo contract, this one to provide launch services for the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission.

SPHEREx will help astronomers understand both how our universe evolved and how common are the ingredients for life in our galaxy’s planetary systems. It is a planned two-year astrophysics mission to survey the sky in the near-infrared light, which, though not visible to the human eye, serves as a powerful tool to answer cosmic questions involving the birth of the universe and the further development of galaxies.

The mission will also look for water and organic molecules essential for life as we know it. This specific search will take place in regions where stars are born from gas and dust called stellar nurseries, as well as disks around stars where new planets could form.

Every six months, SPHEREx will use its 20cm telescope to create a map of the entire sky in 96 different color bands, quite an advance compared to previous models. It will also be able to identify targets that will be further investigated by other NASA equipment, such as the long-awaited James Webb space telescope.

Astronomers will use the mission to collect data on over 300 million galaxies as well as over 100 million stars in our own milky way galaxy, some of them so far away that their light took 10 million years to reach Earth. The work will create a gigantic database.

NASA’s total cost to launch SPHEREx is approximately $98.8 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs. Scheduled for June 2024, the launch of the SPHEREx mission will take place at the Space Launch Complex-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will be responsible for propelling the spacecraft.