SpaceX recently won a contract that will see it launch an important astrophysics mission into Earth orbit for NASA. The contract will have SpaceX put the NASA SPHEREx spacecraft into orbit as early as 2024. SPHEREx stands for Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoque of Reionization, and Ices Explorer.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced the contract award in California on Thursday of this week. SPHEREx is a spacecraft weighing 329 pounds, and it will be pushed into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as early as June 2024. The mission will launch from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
JPL will manage SPHEREx, and the laboratory remains in charge of the overall project management, systems engineering, integration, testing, and mission operations. SPHEREx is a space observatory and is the latest medium-class spacecraft created under the NASA Explorers program of astrophysics missions.
Other NASA missions that are part of the program include TESS, which has been very successful in finding exoplanets. Another of the missions is ICON, which is designed to study the ionosphere of the Earth. SPHEREx will spend two years searching the skies in near-infrared light and will complete a full survey every six months.
Observations in infrared light allow the spacecraft to observe distant galaxies. With data collected by the spacecraft, scientists will conduct an all-sky survey to measure the unique signatures of more than 300 million galaxies across the universe and 100 million stars in the Milky Way, creating a unique sky map. The spacecraft will also search for signs of water and organic molecules in stellar nurseries, which are areas that form stars where planets could form. Searching for signs of water in organic molecules will help in the search for extraterrestrial life and potentially habitable planets.