SpaceX already has a number of lucrative contracts with NASA thanks to its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, not least of which is the recently realized Commercial Crew Program. NASA isn’t just using SpaceX for crewed flights, though. The agency has just awarded SpaceX another cargo contract, this one to deploy the upcoming SPHEREx space telescope. This instrument will scan the entire sky over two years, but it won’t start the work until 2024 at the earliest.
SPHEREx is part of NASA’s Medium-Class Explorers (MIDEX) program along with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and almost a dozen other missions stretching back to the early 90s. SPHEREx is a particularly tortured acronym that stands for Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer. That means SHPEREx will map the sky in near-infrared, which is beyond the limit of human vision.
The total cost of SPHEREx launch services from SpaceX is $98.8 million, a sizable chunk of the expected $395 to $427 million NASA has allocated for the project. TESS is designed to observe objects up to several hundred light-years away, but SPHEREx should be able to scan more than 300 million galaxies and 100 million stars in the Milky Way using its spectrophotometer.
SPHEREx could help scientists better understand how galaxies form and evolve. Every six months, SPHEREx will use its 20cm telescope to create a map of the entire sky in 96 different color bands. NASA believes SHPEREx will be able to gather important data on the presence of water molecules and organics in distant star-forming regions. This will help NASA identify targets for future study with more powerful instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope. In particular, NASA is interested in gathering data that will clarify the “epoch of ionization,” a period in the early universe when the first stars and galaxies formed and reionized the neutral hydrogen that dominated space at the time. SPHEREx will also look farther back at the very beginning in search of evidence for a theorized property of the Big Bang called inflation.
Although, even the chronically delayed Webb should beat SPEREx to space. NASA has yet to begin construction of SPHEREx, which will be a joint effort of NASA JPL and Caltech. The launch is currently scheduled for June 2024 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
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