NASA's SPHEREx space telescope has reached a crucial impasse in its development. The mission is now in "Phase C," which means NASA has given approval for preliminary designs of the space-bound observatory and will begin the final design phase — involving the manufacturing of software and hardware, according to a recent blog post on NASA's official website.
If all goes well, the mission should launch sometime between June 2024 and April 2025.
NASA unveils how SPHEREx space telescope will study big bang mysteries
The space telescope SPHEREx will weigh about as much as a subcompact car (roughly 1.2 tons), and use advanced instruments to divide near-infrared light into colors making it up.
Data from the forthcoming space observatory will help scientists better grasp the composition of stars and other astrophysical bodies — while also yielding better estimates of their respective distances from Earth, Engadget reports. The goal is to build a 3D spectroscopy map of the entire night sky — in near-infrared light.
SPHEREx to search for water ice in our galaxy
This map could help scientists find signs of cosmic inflation theorized to have happened less than one billionth of a second after the big bang — the birth of the known universe. The SPHEREx mission will also help reveal how the first galaxies formed stars.
The space observatory will study stars in our Milky Way — looking for water ice and frozen organic molecules — the fundamental condition for life on Earth. The theory is that water ice clumped together with dust grains inside gas clouds throughout galaxies — inside of which stars formed and ignited, allowing planets to form from the remaining solar material of each star system.
"Ices in these disks could seed planets with water and other organic molecules," wrote NASA in its blog post. "In fact, the water in Earth's oceans most likely began as interstellar ice."
Taking science to space is hard, but worthwhile
Before Phase C, NASA's SPHEREx team had to overcome an initial design review — to prove to NASA the space telescope was feasible. Having gained the agency's approval, the team aims to spend the next 29 months building components and bringing the design to completion. SPHEREx is slated for a June 2024 to April 2025 launch window — of course, if things go according to plan.
While the SPHEREx space telescope's mission is now fairly clear-cut, the path of engineering, building, testing — and eventually launching it — has yet to achieve the same clarity. From the James Webb Space Telescope to SpaceX's Starship rocket, taking science and exploratory missions into space presents countless logistical, financial, and engineering challenges. We can't say for sure which launch window NASA's SPHEREx will ultimately take, but the cosmological adventure of studying the first moments of the big bang is more than worth enduring the wait.