The partnership between the University of Arizona and NASA is growing even stronger with the space agency selecting Carlos Vargas, a postdoctoral researcher in UA's Steward Observatory, to lead a new space telescope mission.
The Aspera mission will study the evolution of galaxies by sending a small telescope—or SmallSat—into space to examine the gas between galaxies in ultraviolet light. Costing $20 million, the mission is planned to launch in late 2024. The telescope is expected to be roughly the size of a mini fridge.
"As telescopes have become more sensitive and have allowed us to discover more exotic types of gases, we now realize there is tons of stuff in between galaxies that connects them," Vargas said in a press release. "Galaxies are undergoing this beautiful dance in which inflowing and outflowing gases balance each other."
According to UA, the Aspera mission's goal is to provide the first-ever direct observations of a certain portion of “circumgalactic medium”—the low-density gas that permeates and surrounds galaxies, and in some cases even connects them.
Aspera is one of four missions in NASA’s new Pioneers Program, which is intended to conduct “compelling astrophysics science at a lower cost using smaller hardware than missions in the Explorers Program.” Principal investigators of the other three missions hail from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the University of Chicago.
NASA describes the Pioneer missions as an experiment, as the agency has never solicited proposals for these kinds of astrophysics studies at such low cost and with such tight constraints.
“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,” said Thomas H. Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “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.”