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NASA selects proposals to study black holes, neutron stars and more


NASA has selected 5 suggestions submitted to its Explorers Program to conduct intensive scientific research and develop mechanisms that fill the scientific gaps between the agency’s larger missions. The selected proposals materialized in 3 Astrophysics Small Explorer missions and 2 Explorer Missions of Opportunity, will study polarized X-ray emissions from neutron star – black hole binary systems, galaxies in the early universe, the exponential expansion of space in the early universe and star formation in our Milky Way Galaxy. “The Explorers Program brings out some of the most creative ideas for missions to help unravel the mysteries of the Universe,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. “The program has resulted in great missions that have returned transformational science, and these selections promise to continue that tradition.” The suggestions were selected based on potential science importance and feasibility of development strategies. One of each mission type will be carefully chosen by 2017, after concept studies and complete calculations, to continue with construction and launch, the earliest of which could be launched by 2020. Small Explorer mission expenses are capped at $125 million each, not including the launch vehicle and Mission of Opportunity costs capped at $65 million each. To conduct an 11-month mission concept study, each Astrophysics Small Explorer mission will receive $1 million.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), launched in 2012, is an Explorer mission that allows astronomers to study the universe in high energy X-rays.

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Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The selected proposals are: SPHEREx: An All-Sky Near-Infrared Spectral Survey

Martin Weisskopf, NASA’s principal investigator at Marshall Space Flight Center – Huntsville, Alabama
IXPE uses X-ray polarimetry, which represent the survey and interpretation of the electromagnetic waves polarization, to improve our understanding of how X-ray emission is created in objects such as stellar and supermassive black holes, pulsar wind nebulae and neutron stars.
Polarimeter for Relativistic Astrophysical X-ray Sources (PRAXyS)

Keith Jahoda, principal scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – Greenbelt, Maryland
PRAXyS uses X-ray polarimetry to describe the behavior and geometry of X-ray sources including pulsars, magnetars, supernovae and super-massive black holes.
To conduct an eleven-month implementation concept study missions of Opportunity will receive $250,000.
The selected proposals are:
GUSTO: Gal/Xgal U/LDB Spectroscopic/Stratospheric THz Observatory

Christopher Walker, principal researcher – University of Arizona in Tucson
GUSTO is a balloon-borne observatory of high-frequency radio emissions from our Milky Way galaxy and a nearby companion galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, to analyze the life phase of interstellar material.

James Bock, main investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California
SPHEREx will execute an all-sky near infrared spectral analysis to probe the origin of our Universe; explore whether planets around other stars could harbor life and study the origin and evolution of known galaxies.
Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)

Adrian Lee, main researcher – University of California in Berkeley
The Japanese LiteBIRD mission with U.S. contributions to the payload will map polarized fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, or the leftover thermal radiation from the Big Bang, to search for the signature of gravitational waves from inflation, potentially shedding light on the universe a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

The program is directed by Goddard for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which manages a wide diversity of scientific exploration programs and research for space weather, Earth studies, the solar system and universe.

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