NASA chooses four small-scale astrophysics missions for the Pioneers program

NASA has confirmed that it has chosen four small-scale astrophysics missions for further development. The missions were selected as part of its new Pioneers program and are intended to explore cosmic phenomena like galaxy evolution, exoplanets, high-energy neutrinos, and neutron star mergers. The four concepts chosen for additional study include Aspera, Pandora, StarBurst, and PUEO.

Aspera is a SmallSat meant to study galactic evolution. It will conduct observations using ultraviolet light and examine hot gas in the space between galaxies known as the intergalactic medium. It will also investigate the inflow and outflow of gas from galaxies.

Pandora is a SmallSat meant to study 20 stars and their 39 exoplanets using both visible and infrared light. It wants to separate signals from the stars and planetary atmospheres. One goal is to understand how changes in starlight impacts measurements of exoplanets, which is a challenge in the search for habitable planets outside of our solar system.

StarBurst is also a SmallSat that will detect high-energy gamma rays from events like neutron star mergers. The information would provide insight into these events, which are also detected through gravitational waves by observatories on earth. Researchers say neutron star mergers are where most heavy metals in the universe, like gold and platinum, are formed.

PUEO is a balloon mission that would launch from Antarctica designed to detect signals from ultra-high energy neutrinos. This type of neutrino contains clues about the highest-energy astrophysical processes, such as the creation of black holes and neutron star mergers. Neutrinos can travel across the universe undisturbed and carry information about events billions of light-years away.

NASA says the cost for a Pioneer mission is $20 million. The low price point is possible thanks to the flourishing industry around small satellites. The missions allow researchers to use off-the-shelf spacecraft and to use telescopes developed by other governmental agencies.