SPHEREx space telescope preliminary design plans approved

NASA has announced that it has approved the preliminary design plans for an upcoming space telescope known as SPHEREx. According to NASA, the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoque of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) space telescope has entered Phase C. Entering Phase C means with the preliminary design plans approved, work can begin on a final, detailed design.

Work towards building hardware and software for the space telescope will be managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. SPHEREx will launch no earlier than June 2024 and no later than April 2025. Instruments aboard the space telescope will detect near-infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.

SPHEREx will have a two-year mission and will map the entire sky four times, creating a huge database of stars, galaxies, nebulas, and other celestial objects. The space telescope is roughly the size of a subcompact car and will operate using a spectroscopy technique, allowing it to break near-infrared light down into individual wavelengths, similar to how a prism can break sunlight into component colors. That data will reveal what an object is made of because individual chemical elements absorb and radiate specific wavelengths of light.

SPHEREx will also estimate the distance of an object from Earth to create a three-dimensional map. It's the first NASA mission that will build a full-sky spectroscopy map in near-infrared, observing 102 near-infrared colors. Allen Farrington, SPHEREx project manager at JPL, says the number of colors the space telescope will capture is like going from black-and-white images to color.

The mission has three overarching goals with the first being to look for evidence of something that might have happened less than a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. The second goal is to study the history of galaxy formation, beginning with the first stars to ignite after the Big Bang and moving to present-day galaxies. The final goal is to create a map scientists can use to look for water ice and frozen organic molecules around newly forming stars in our galaxy.