Scientists at Colorado State University Boulder (CU Boulder) are developing a toaster-sized satellite to explore one of the most fundamental mysteries of space. Physicists and astronomers have long been concerned with the question of how the radiation of stars “made its way” from the first galaxies to fundamentally change the composition of the Universe. Scientists talked about their invention in an article for Nature Nanotechnology.
Scientists hope to get their questions answered with the SPRITE satellite, a NASA-funded mission led by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in CU Boulder.
SPRITE is slated to launch in 2022. This CubeSat will weigh only about 18 kg. CubeSat is a format of small artificial earth satellites for space exploration, with a volume of no more than a few liters and a mass of several kilograms. The creation of cubesats became possible due to the development of microminiaturization and nanotechnology and became a mass phenomenon in the 21st century.
The satellite will collect unprecedented data from modern stars and supernovae. The goal is to help scientists better understand the “era of reionization”. This is a period of time in which the first stars of the Universe lived quickly, and their burning out and transformation into a supernova took place in just a few million years. Negligible on a cosmic scale.
“We are trying to establish what the universe was like when it first formed and how it evolved to its current state,” explains Brian Fleming, LASP research professor who leads the SPRITE mission.
The team also hopes SPRITE will show what CubeSat can achieve as a satellite species. Today, most of these miniature spacecraft are focused on exploring phenomena that are closer to home. For example, they supply data on the weather on Earth or solar flares.
In other words, SPRITE packs big ambition in a small package.
Fleming explained that prior to the reionization era, the universe was not what it is today. The first stars and galaxies in space were just beginning to form, but their light could not travel far into space as it does today – huge distances between galaxies were filled with a neutral gas, which effectively blurred the universe.
Then, just over 13 billion years ago, the situation began to change. Radiation from young stars began to emerge from their galaxies and ionize the surrounding gas, repelling electrons from hydrogen atoms and changing the nature of the matter that permeates the Universe.
However, scientists still do not know how this light was able to escape from the first galaxies in the universe. The data from the new mission, the researchers hope, will help them get to the bottom of the truth.
It won’t be easy. Such radiation can only be seen in a narrow window of ultraviolet light, which has historically been difficult to detect with telescopes. To work around this limitation, the SPRITE team is experimenting with a number of new technologies that have never been sent into space before.
The SPRITE team is in the process of finalizing the spacecraft’s design and will soon begin prototyping parts.