Four new astrophysics missions at NASA to study Universe’s secrets

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Four new astrophysics missions at NASA to study Universe’s secrets

WASHINGTON — A new program at NASA has chosen four small-scale astrophysics missions that aim to shine a light on the Universe’s deepest, darkest secrets.

The four missions will study cosmic phenomena like galaxy evolution, exoplanets, high-energy neutrinos, and neutron star mergers using small satellites and scientific balloons.

“The principal investigators of these concept studies bring innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to the problem of how to do high-impact astrophysics experiments on a small budget,” Thomas H. Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said. “Each of the proposed experiments would do something no other NASA telescope or mission can do, filling important gaps in our understanding of the universe as a whole.” 

These are the four concepts chosen for further study:

Aspera is a SmallSat that will study galaxy evolution. By observing ultraviolet light, researchers will study the hot gas in the space between galaxies, called the intergalactic medium, and the inflow and outflow of gas from galaxies.

The intergalactic medium is a major component of the universe, but is poorly measured; Aspera would close this gap.

The principal investigator is Carlos Vargas at the University of Arizona.

Pandora is a SmallSat that will study 20 stars and their 39 exoplanets in visible and infrared light.

Understanding how changes in starlight affects measurements of exoplanets is an outstanding problem in the search for habitable planets beyond the solar system.

The principal investigator is Elisa Quintana of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

StarBurst is a SmallSat that will detect high-energy gamma-ray from events like mergers of neutron stars. Information gathered from this would provide valuable insight into the mergers that are where most of the heavy metals in the universe, such as gold and platinum, are formed.

To date, only one such event has been observed simultaneously in gravitational waves and gamma-rays; StarBurst would find up to 10 per year. 

The principal investigator is Daniel Kocevski of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

PUEO is a balloon mission designed to launch from Antarctica that will find signals from particles that contain valuable clues about the highest-energy astrophysical processes, including the creation of black holes and neutron star mergers.

Neutrinos travel across the universe undisturbed, carrying information about events that happened billions of light-years away. PUEO would be the most sensitive survey of cosmic ultra-high energy neutrinos ever conducted.

The principal investigator is Abigail Vieregg of the University of Chicago.

The Pioneers program is providing opportunities for early-to-mid-career researchers to propose innovative experiments and lead investigations for the first time.

Principal investigators must be creative with designing their missions in order to keep expenses down. The cap for each Pioneers mission is $20 million.

“We don’t know if there is great astrophysics that can be done in a $20 million satellite, but we challenged the community and they sent in a lot of innovative proposals,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said. “Now, we’re excited to see if they can deliver.”


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Four new astrophysics missions at NASA to study Universe’s secrets

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