NASA's cosmic mapmaker could scan over 99 percent of the sky every 6 months

Called SPHEREx, NASA's forthcoming spacecraft will catalog the depths of the universe.
Christopher McFadden

NASA has finalized plans for a new space telescope that will be able to scan the entire sky every 6 months. Called the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer, or SPHEREx for short, this new cosmic mapmaker will have some similarities to the James Webb Telescope but will have some very important differences. 

At present, SPHEREx is scheduled for launch no later than April 2025, and its primary mission will be to look for clues of what happened within the first few seconds after the "Big Bang". It will also collect data on how galaxies form and evolve, and look at molecules critical to life like water. 

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All of this will require the latest cutting-edge technologies, plans for which have now been finalized by NASA. 

"We're at the transition from doing things with computer models to doing things with real hardware," explained Allen Farrington, SPHEREx project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who will be managing the SPHEREx mission. "The design for the spacecraft, as it stands, is confirmed. We have shown that it's doable down to the smallest details. So now we can really start building and putting things together."

SPHEREx will be the latest in a long line of space telescopes that have been launched into orbit over the last few decades by NASA. However, unlike others, like the venerable Hubble Space Telescope that is designed to concentrate on individual stars and galaxies, SPHEREx will provide a much "bigger picture" of the universe. 

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Scanning almost 100 percent of the sky every 6 months

It will be able to scan large portions of the sky and allow the object in it, very quickly. In fact, SPHEREx will scan over 99% of the cosmos every six months. To put that into perspective, the Hubble Space Telescope has only been able to observe around 0.1% of the night's sky over its entire 30-year career - albeit in high definition. 

While SPHEREx can't see objects with the same level of detail as targeted observatories, they can answer questions about the typical properties of those objects throughout the universe.

NASA's recently launched James Webb Space Telescope is another high-definition space telescope that is designed to zoom in on exoplanets measuring their size, temperature, weather patterns, etc. However, this kind of approach, while incredibly valuable, kind of "misses the woods for the trees". What is also needed is to see whether an exoplanet sits in a region of space conducive to life. 

This is where SPHEREx will come into its own by measuring the prevalence of life-sustaining materials like water that reside in icy dust grains in the galactic clouds from which new stars and their planetary systems are born. This is one of the current hypotheses for the existence of water on Earth. 

"It's the difference between getting to know a few individual people, and doing a census and learning about the population as a whole," said Beth Fabinsky, deputy project manager for SPHEREx at JPL. "Both types of studies are important, and they complement each other. But there are some questions that can only be answered through that census."

SPHEREx has an 8-inch primary mirror and a sun shield that is just 10.5 feet across. It will primarily look at the universe using infrared light that it will be able to perform various analyses including spectroscopy to break infrared light into its individual wavelengths, or colors, just like a prism breaks sunlight into its component colors. This will, in part, enable scientists to figure out what something is made of from a distance.