NASA has selected the the UltraViolet EXplorer (UVEX), led by Caltech's Fiona Harrison, the Harold A. Rosen Professor of Physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, for further study. UVEX is one of four space mission proposals submitted to the agency's Explorers Program and selected for further study: two MIDEX (Medium Explorer) missions capped at $300 million (excluding launch) and two, smaller, missions of opportunity, capped at $80 million each. UVEX is one of the two MIDEX missions.
If selected for launch, UVEX would conduct a deep survey of the whole sky in two bands of ultraviolet light to provide new insights into galaxy evolution and the life cycle of stars. The spacecraft would have the ability to repoint rapidly to capture ultraviolet light from explosions that follows bursts of gravitational waves, or ripples in space and time caused by merging neutron stars. UVEX would carry an ultraviolet spectrograph for detailed study of massive stars and stellar explosions.
"I am truly excited by the scientific breadth and reach of this mission, and feel privileged to be working with a truly excellent team from a diversity of institutions," says Harrison, who is also the principial investigator of NASA's NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission, which recently celebrated 10 years in space.
The Explorers Program in general conducts focused scientific investigations and develops instruments that fill scientific gaps between the agency's larger space science missions. Proposals are competitively selected based on potential science value and feasibility of development plans. Explorer missions come in different classes, with the MIDEX missions having the highest costs.
UVEX will receive $3 million to conduct a nine-month mission concept study. After detailed evaluation of those studies, NASA plans to select one Medium Explorer in 2024 to proceed with implementation (UVEX is competing against another proposal called the Survey and Time-domain Astrophysical Research Explorer, or STAR-X). The selected mission will be targeted for launch in 2028.
Other members of the UVEX team include four Caltech faculty members—Shri Kulkarni, George Ellery Hale Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science; Mansi Kasliwal (MS '07, PhD '11), professor of astronomy; Sterl Phinney (BS '80), professor of theoretical astrophysics; and Chris Martin, professor of physics—in addition to other team members at Caltech's IPAC astronomy center and JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA.