Caltech-Led Mission Selected by NASA to Explore Space for the Origin of Water

The two-year mission will survey distant galaxies and newborn stars to understand the evolution of the universe better.

A Caltech-led mission that aims to help astronomers better understand the evolution of our universe has received funding from NASA.

The Spectrophotometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer mission (SPHEREx) is a planned two-year mission that will uncover how common the ingredients for life are in our galaxy's planetary systems. 

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The mission is expected to cost 242 million (not including launch costs) and will hopefully launch in 2023. James Bock, a professor of physics at Caltech and senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is leading the mission. 

History of the universe under scrutiny

The SPHEREx mission will be part of NASA's Explorer Program and will study the history of our universe and the origin of water as well as the history of galaxies. The mission is planned to survey the entire sky in optical and infrared light a total of four times.

It will capture in detailed information of millions of stars and galaxies that will be used for further research. 

"With this announcement, we look forward to building SPHEREx," says Bock.

"SPHEREx will explore the beginning of the universe, the history of galaxy formation, and the role of interstellar ices during the birth of new stars and planets while providing a unique all-sky data set for astronomy." 

"We're all very excited to continue our tradition of Caltech-JPL partnerships on astrophysics Explorer missions, starting with GALEX, then NuSTAR, and now SPHEREx," says Fiona Harrison, the Benjamin M. Rosen Professor Physics at Caltech; Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair, Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy; and the principal investigator of NuSTAR. 

"Explorers enable cutting-edge science implemented on a rapid timescale. These missions offer our students, postdocs, and young researchers the opportunity to get involved in space missions that they can see launch within their time at Caltech." 

Origin of water explored

SPHEREx is an ambitious mission that will survey galaxies so far away from earth that their light takes more than 10 billion years to reach us. Investigations in the Milky Way will look for water and organic molecules in stellar nurseries. 

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The nurseries are where stars are born from gas and dust. Once completes the mission will have created a map of our entire sky in 96 different color bands. The complete map will be far superior to any previous iterations. 

The accuracy will extend to notations that should assist future missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope to locate particular study areas. 

"I'm really excited about this new mission," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a news release. 

"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."

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JPL will oversee the development of the SPHEREx mission. The data collected during the mission will be available through IPAC, an astronomy data and science center based at Caltech.

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