The mission will further our understanding of how the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang.
The data collected by the space observatory will lead to a 3D map of the sky, making it NASA’s first mission to create a spectroscopic map of the entire sky in near infrared light. The name “SPHEREx” is an acronym for Spectro-Photometer for Universe History, Age of Reionization and Ices Explorer.
The space observatory, which will be comparable in size to a compact car, is expected to launch between June 2024 and April 2025.
Track countless galaxies and stars
The devices on the SPHEREx will monitor the sky in visible light as well as near infrared light. The human eye cannot see near-infrared light, but it has helped astronomers look into unseen sides of space and learn more about the universe.
His tools will use spectroscopy to separate the near-infrared light that the telescope can see at individual wavelengths. This data can shed light on an object’s composition or even its distance from Earth.
“This is like going from black and white images to color; it’s like going from Kansas to Oz,” said Allen Farrington, SPHEREx project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.
Scientists expect to collect data on more than 300 million galaxies near and far – some of them so distant that it took 10 billion years for their light to reach Earth.
The telescope will also scan more than 100 million stars in the Milky Way as it searches for water ice and other organic molecules in star nurseries and surrounding star areas where new planets can form. Stellar birthplaces, where stars congregate from gas and dust, could contain clues to components of life.
At the end of the mission, astronomers expect to obtain a map of the entire sky that exceeds the accuracy of previous similar maps, according to the agency.
The Spirx Space Telescope will also be able to identify in more detail the objects of interest to other NASA missions.
Clues from new star formations
The mission team has some specific goals in mind for SPHEREx.
Scientists will search for evidence that the universe swelled in a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, when space as we know it expanded rapidly. This would have changed how the material was distributed. Evidence for this inflation may exist in the patterns and locations of galaxies across the universe.
Astronomers also want to learn more about the history of how galaxies were formed, including those first stars that formed after the Big Bang. The galaxies put off a faint glow. This glow varies across space depending on the position of galaxies because some tend to remain in groups called clusters. The maps created by SPHEREx that break down light into different color ranges could reveal more information about the first galaxies that formed stars.
By taking a closer look at the new stars forming in the Milky Way, astronomers will also be able to learn more about how modern planetary systems were created. Planets are made of star-forming remnants – mainly disks of gas, dust, and water ice orbiting together. This residual water ice could bring water and other organic molecules to the planets – just like the way water was brought to Earth early on.
This will tell scientists whether our planetary system, which includes Earth and its ability to support life, is common or rare.
Final design and assembly
NASA officials announced this week that the mission has entered Phase C, which means early design plans have been approved and teams can begin the final design and assembly of hardware and software. The California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will develop the instruments on the SPHEREx while the spacecraft itself will be built by Ball Aerospace.
The SPHEREx team will spend the next 29 months building these components before entering the next mission phase: assembly, testing and launch.