NASA has chosen four minor astrophysics missions for further research, but the agency alerts that not all will eventually be flown. NASA Agency announced on January 7 that it was the first of its new Astrophysics Explorers program to choose three small-sat flights as well as a high-altitude balloon mission. The initiative, which was launched last year, is built to assist small missions in the astrophysics, such as smallsats, balloons, and the payloads from the International Space Station. Four of the 24 applications it got in the fall were chosen by the NASA Agency.
In a report on the recruitment of Astrophysics Pioneers, Thomas Zurbuchen, who serves as NASA Associate Administrator for Science, stated: “One of the proposed projects will do what no other NASA Agency telescope or even mission would do, filling crucial holes in our knowledge of the cosmos overall.” He lauded the scientists who initiated the missions to implement “innovative, out-of-the-box thought to the question of how to conduct astrophysics studies on a limited budget with a high impact.”
Aspera, one preferred smallsat, will research galaxy evolution by detecting hot gas at the ultraviolet wavelengths between galaxies. At visible as well as infrared wavelengths, a second, Pandora, will detect 20 stars believed to be exoplanets. Gamma rays from the neutron star mergers can be observed by the third smallsat, StarBurst, operating in combination with the gravitational wave telescopes on the ground. The Payload for Ultrahigh Energy Observations (PUEO) is a balloon-borne method that tests neutrinos with ultrahigh-energy from neutron star mergers as well as black hole formation.
Every project has a cost limit of $20 million, which brings them close to the bottom of what NASA’s astrophysics division chief, Paul Hertz, described as a “logarithmically spaced” range of mission classes ranging from $5 million cubesats to the flagship missions worth billions of dollars at a January 8 meeting of many astrophysics advisory councils. Astrophysics Pioneers’ goal is to support missions that are too big to fit into cubesat plan but do not require the scale and sophistication of larger satellite systems, such as Explorer.
For six-month design tests, the four missions earned money, during which they would undergo what Hertz considered “gateway” assessments. “They are not in rivalry with one another; however, they compete with their $20 million cost limit,” he stated. Hertz stated he anticipated that one or even more of the Astrophysics Pioneers’ proposals would not fit into the cost limit based on familiarity with past NASA smallsat missions. He said, “It’s just really difficult to keep such small missions in their low-cost boxes. We believe it is more likely that some of the missions might not go through that gate.”