NASA has Chosen 4 new Pioneer Missions: Aspera, Pandora, StarBurst, and PEUO

Budget constraints are a major consideration for every space program throughout the world.  Lately, NASA has taken a particularly bold approach, by not only innovating through novel ideas that could do great science, but innovating with the way they fund those missions.  A good example of this innovation is the Astrophysics Pioneers program, which is a NASA fund program targeted at early- to mid-career researchers.  The interesting thing about the program is that the overall budget for each project is capped at $20 million.  Now, the program has selected its first four projects to move ahead to its second stage.

The first project, named Aspera (latin for hard / difficult) would use ultraviolet light to study the “intergalactic medium” – the space in between galaxies that we know very little about so far.  Specifically it will look for any hot gas that might be contained in that space, and while it is not known how (or even if) this hot gas interacts with the rest of the universe, data collected from Aspera could help us sort through the clouds of questions surrounding this space.

Artist depiction of the Aspera mission.
Aspera will search for hot gas between galaxies. Lead by Carlos Vargas of the University of Arizona
Credit: University of Arizona

Pandora is the second project, and will focus on studying the differences in measurements between exoplanet atmospheres and that of their stars.  Specifically it will take a deep dive into the 39 exoplanets surrounding 20 stars it will survey, with a hope to “disentangle the stars and planetary atmospheres.”  This data could provide a great boost to the search for habitable exoplanets, as observing their atmospheres is one of the best way to determine whether an exoplanet is habitable or not.

Artist depiction of the Pandora mission.
Pandora Mission to characterize exoplanets. Lead by Elisa Quintana of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Credit: NASA / Elisa Quintana

The third project, called StarBurst, will monitor the skies for high energy gamma rays from events such as the merger of neutron stars.  These events would be synchronized with the detection of simultaneous gravity waves at facilities such as LIGO, providing a multimodal methodology for monitoring these hugely destructive events.  StarBurst, led by Daniel Kocevski of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, hopes to enable simultaneous capture of data of up to 10 events a year, whereas only one has ever been successfully captured so far.

PUEO (Payload for Ultrahigh Energy Observations), the fourth mission selected for further study, is different. Rather than require a satellite, it is actually a balloon launched mission.  It will concentrate on attempting to detect ultra-high energy neutrinos, such as those created by newly formed black holes or merging neutron stars. 

Artist conception of the PUEO mission.
Artist Conception of the PUEO Project, headed by Abigail Vieregg of the University of Chicago.
Credit: University of Washington in St. Louis

NASA notes in their press release that none of these projects have yet been cleared for launch, and they will require at least a year of further study before being reassessed for launch worthiness.  Any technically successful project must also fit in the budgetary constraints of the Pioneers program.  But luckily, researchers will be able to leverage plenty of novel, commercially available hardware for CubeSats and other small satellites that was not available even a few years ago. That available infrastructure is one reason NASA thought now would be a good time to launch the Pioneers program in the first place.  There are a lot of people that are hoping they were right.

Learn More:
NASA: NASA Selects 4 Concept for Small Missions to Study Universe’s Secrets
SpaceRef: NASA Astrophysics Pioneers Community Announcement
SpaceNews: NASA Astrophysics Division embraces cubesats and smallsats
SyFy: Potentially mind-blowing secrets of the Universe could be exposed with new NASA missions

Lead Image:
Artist’s depiction of neutron stars colliding
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / CI Lab