NASA has selected a new space mission which will help it understand the origins of the universe.
SphereX – short for the snappily named Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer – is expected to launch in 2023.
It will scan the sky for visible as well as invisible near-infrared light, and the data it gathers on more than 300 million galaxies and 100 million stars could provide crucial evidence about the universe.
Within our own galaxy, SphereX will be scanning for water and organic molecules – the essential material for life – in regions of space where stars and planets are being born.
It has received $ 242m (£188m) in funding and is initially budgeted to run for two years, although such missions have often been extended following a successful launch.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “I’m really excited about this new mission.
“Not only does it expand the US’ powerful fleet of space-based missions dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of the universe, it is a critical part of a balanced science programme that includes missions of various sizes.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, added: “This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers.
“It will deliver an unprecedented galactic map containing ‘fingerprints’ from the first moments in the universe’s history.
“And we’ll have new clues to one of the greatest mysteries in science: what made the universe expand so quickly less than a nanosecond after the big bang?”
Every six months, SphereX will survey the entire sky with technology the team has adapted from Earth satellites and Mars spacecraft.
According to NASA, the missions will “create a map of the entire sky in 96 different colour bands, far exceeding the colour resolution of previous all-sky maps”.
This will enable the space agency to identify targets for more in-depth study in future missions.