The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoque of Reionization, and Ices Explorer Telescope (SPHEREx) will traverse space and map the sky, in its entirety, multiple times during a two-year mission.
The mapping will create a large database, which will include galaxies, stars, nebulas and other objects and the collected data will culminate in a 3D map of the sky. It will be NASA’s first all-sky spectral survey.
The space observatory is expected to launch sometime between June 2024 and April 2025.
The graphic below illustrates how the telescope’s implementation will address NASA’s objectives:
The instruments SPHEREx is equipped with will observe the sky in both visible light and near-infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye but has helped astronomers gain insight into invisible aspects of space and learn more about the universe, according to CNN.
The telescope, which will be the size of an average family vehicle, can determine the makeup of an object or its distance from the earth by separating the near-infrared light it can pick up into individual wavelengths.
“That’s like going from black-and-white images to colour; it’s like going from Kansas to Oz,” according to Allen Farrington, the SPHEREx project manager.
Scientists expect to capture data of more than 300 million near and distant galaxies, some of which are so distant, it has taken about 10-billion years for their light to reach earth, according to NASA.
The telescope might even find the ingredients for life, as it will survey more than 100-million stars in the Milky Way galaxy, searching for water ice and other organic materials in star nurseries and the areas surrounding stars that could facilitate the formation of new planets.
“These stellar birthplaces, where stars come together from gas and dust, could contain evidence of the ingredients for life,” said CNN.
Scientists will also be searching for evidence related to the inflation of the universe a split second after the Big Bang, which is when space as we know it expanded rapidly and changed how the matter was distributed. The evidence of that inflation may lie in the patterns and positioning of galaxies across the universe.
Astronomers also want to investigate the history of galaxy formation, especially the first stars that appeared after the Big Bang.
“Galaxies put off a faint glow. This glow varies across space depending on the placement of galaxies because some of them tend to stay in groups called clusters,” said CNN.
The maps created by SPHEREx can reveal more details about initial galaxies by breaking downlight into different colour bands and by observing how younger stars are forming, scientists will be able to learn more about how new planet systems are created.
The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will create the instruments on SPHEREx, while the spacecraft will be manufactured by Ball Aerospace.
The mission is now in Phase C, according to NASA, which means that its early design plans have been greenlit. Work on the final design and assembly of hardware and software can now be done.
The SPHEREx team will spend the next 29 months manufacturing these components before commencing the next phase of the mission, which will be assembly, testing and launch.