NASA’s SPHEREx mission, a groundbreaking initiative to map the universe, is rapidly progressing, showcasing a remarkable application of aluminium in space exploration. The mission’s centerpiece, the SPHEREx space telescope, is currently under assembly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. This innovative observatory, set to stand almost 8.5 feet tall and stretch nearly 10.5 feet wide, resembles a giant bullhorn. It’s designed to create a detailed map of the universe, the likes of which have never been seen before.
A key feature of SPHEREx is its unique aluminium-based design. The telescope is shielded by three cone-shaped photon shields, each ingeniously nested within the other. These shields, predominantly composed of aluminium, are critical for protecting the telescope from the Sun and Earth’s light and heat. This design enables the spacecraft to methodically scan every section of the sky, completing two all-encompassing sky maps annually.
Sara Susca, JPL’s deputy payload manager and payload systems engineer, highlighted the role of aluminium in the mission in a press release.
“SPHEREx’s agility is remarkable, and much of that is due to its lightweight yet robust aluminium shields. These shields might appear hefty, but they are actually quite light, composed of aluminium sheets on the outside and an internal aluminium honeycomb structure that resembles cardboard – light but sturdy.”
Scheduled for launch by April 2025, SPHEREx’s mission extends beyond mere observation. It seeks to unravel mysteries about the origins of water and essential elements for life. Utilizing its aluminium-centric design, the telescope will measure water ice in interstellar clouds and analyze the light emitted by galaxies, providing new insights into the formation and evolution of galaxies and planets.
The observatory’s capability to detect infrared light is pivotal for its mission. Maintaining the telescope’s temperature below minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit is crucial to avoid interference from its own infrared emissions. Here, aluminium’s role is again prominent. The photon shield’s aluminium structure, coupled with a specialized V-groove radiator, effectively manages the telescope’s temperature.
Konstantin Penanen, payload manager at JPL, emphasized the importance of a stable temperature for SPHEREx.
“Ensuring a consistent temperature is as important as achieving the low temperatures. Variations could affect the sensitivity of our detectors, potentially leading to inaccurate readings.”
The telescope itself, the mission’s core component, is equipped with three mirrors and six detectors, all fine-tuned to capture infrared light. After undergoing rigorous testing at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, the telescope’s precision and durability were confirmed, showcasing the resilience of its aluminium components.
SPHEREx represents a collaborative effort, managed by JPL for NASA’s Astrophysics Division. The mission unites scientists from various U.S. institutions and South Korea. The data collected, processed at IPAC at Caltech, will be publicly available, marking a significant contribution to our understanding of the cosmos.