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NASA's new 3D sky-mapping space telescope gets a custom test chamber

Hardware for NASA's SPHEREx mission lowered through the ceiling into test chamber.
Components of NASA's SPHEREx space telescope are lowered into a basement laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena, California. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A custom-built test chamber for a new NASA space telescope has arrived at Caltech in Pasadena to help ready the spacecraft for launch in 2025.

The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer, or SPHEREx telescope, is designed to create a unique, 3D map of the entire sky. The survey will map 100 million stars in the Milky Way as well as out galaxies, star-forming regions, and other cosmic phenomena.

SPHEREx will carry a wide-field telescope that will allow it to detect infrared light to map objects but also collect valuable data on their composition and age.

Related: SpaceX will launch SPHEREx and solar wind mission for NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope also views the universe in the infrared, the heat-carrying segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, which helps it see even deeper into the universe than other space telescopes including Hubble. 

Both telescopes' ability to observe the sky in the infrared will allow them to search for the telltale spectral signs of water and organic molecules.

"SPHEREx uses its unique all-sky spectral map to survey for icy biogenic molecules in regions where stars are being born, chart the cosmic history of galaxy formation, and search for the signatures of the Big Bang in the 3-D distribution of distant galaxies," SPHEREx principal investigator Jamie Bock, a professor of physics at Caltech, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

But in order to prepare SPHEREx and its sensitive instruments for the harsh environment of space, a customized, cylindrical chamber about the size of a small SUV has been built by the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

The chamber spent a month crossing the Pacific Ocean on a ship before arriving in California.

Once ready the telescope is set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than April 2025. Three other missions, including another NASA mission, PUNCH, which will study the solar wind, will be along for the ride.

The analysis of the SPHEREx data will be conducted by a team of scientists located at 10 institutions across the U.S. and mission partners in South Korea.. The SPHEREx dataset will be made publicly available.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).