The chronically delayed James Webb Space Telescope might get most of the attention, but NASA has other space telescope projects active and in the planning phases. The latest one is known as SPHEREx, and it just reached an important development milestone. When launched, this device could help us explore the earliest moments of the universe and unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the Big Bang. Or it will when NASA builds it — it’ll take a while.
According to NASA, SPHEREx has now reached Phase C, which means the agency has approved the preliminary design. So, we know what the telescope will look like (roughly) and what it will be able to do. Next up, NASA has to finalize the design and begin lining up the personnel and materials needed to assemble this 1.2-ton telescope.
You won’t be seeing any Hubble-style photos of distant astronomical objects from SPHEREx. It will operate in the infrared range, which is the best way to observe the most distant, and therefore oldest, parts of the universe. One of the telescope’s primary goals will be to probe the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang for evidence of a process called inflation. Scientists theorize that inflation, if it was indeed part of the birth of the universe, would affect the way galaxies are distributed. With its camera system, SPHEREx will create a 3D map of galaxies, allowing scientists to search for these patterns.
NASA also hopes to use SPHEREx to study the way galaxies form. The camera will be sensitive enough to analyze the glow from all the galaxies in the universe. The glow varies across the sky because galaxies are distributed in clumps (which might tell us about inflation). By determining when and how the light was produced, scientists will be able to make determinations about galaxy formation.
The last goal of the project is to search for evidence of water ice and frozen organic molecules around young stars in our galaxy. The infrared cameras on SPHEREx will be ideal for peering through the clouds of dust that surround such stars. Ice and organics driving through the clouds could eventually seed planets to make them habitable, and that could go a long way to improving our understanding of planetary formation and the potential distribution of life.
NASA has allotted 29 months to complete the design and initial manufacturing of the components. After that, NASA will assemble the spacecraft and prepare it for launch. There’s no firm launch timeline right now.