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RIT professor participates in project aimed at universe’s origins

The bad news in space this week is the little rover that could has officially pooped out on Mars.

The good news is NASA announced it has set aside $242 million for a new project that could explain the mysteries of the universe, such as how it was created. And a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology is one of 19 researchers who are behind the project.

Michael Zemcov, an assistant professor at RIT, will take on the job of designing ways to translate data from the SPHEREx mission. SPHEREx stands for Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer.

Michael Zemcov. Photo by Elizabeth Lamark, RIT
Michael Zemcov (Elizabeth Lamark, RIT)

All that is to describe the building of a telescope that will launch in 2023 with three goals: determining the expansion of the universe, gaining insights into the history of how galaxies were formed, and answering questions about key molecules involved in the formation of galaxies.

“We’re basically mapping the entire sky,” Zemcov said, using the infrared part of the light spectrum.

“SPHEREx picks up where our eyes leave off. …It’s a pretty complete view. We haven’t done anything like that — so comprehensive.”  This big picture will perhaps determine which of many existing theories about the formation of the universe is correct.

“If you have a good enough map of where everything is, you can figure out how it got there,” Zemcov said.

The SPHEREx  telescope is designed to transmit data for two years, but if the Mars rover and other projects are any example, well-built space projects may continue to function and provide data long after their original expiration date.

“I’m very excited by the opportunity to help explain if and how inflation happened, and to understand more about it,” said Zemcov. “There are hundreds of models for inflation right now and they all describe different scenarios that may have happened. Being able to constrain what actually happened would teach us new things about the fundamental physics of the early universe that we have no access to otherwise. For me that’s really exciting because I don’t see a better way to get at it right now.”

Zemcov came to RIT from CalTech, where he worked with the primary investigator of SPHEREx, James Bock.

Zemcov said the telescope for this project would be dwarfed by the giant James Webb Space Telescope, which is still being tested before it can be launched. The Webb telescope will provide great detail,  he noted, while SPHEREx, with lenses less than 8 inches across, will  provide less detail and a more comprehensive picture.

“As soon as we get ball rolling, we will start in with the team to build data analysis. The big show is when it’s up in space,” Zemcov said. “The problem is, it’s a fire hose of data. We have to be ready for that by the time it starts.”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “I’m really excited about this new mission. Not only does it expand the United States’ powerful fleet of space-based missions dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of the universe, it is a critical part of a balanced science program that includes missions of various sizes.”

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