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The Milky Way is ready for a close-up. A new space telescope being developed by NASA will launch in 2025 to help scientists better understand the evolution of our galaxy.
Learning about the Milky Way’s past is intrinsically linked with understanding more about our cosmic home. Our solar system is located within just one of the galaxy’s spiral arms.
Called the Compton Spectrometer and Imager, or COSI, the gamma-ray telescope will observe the formation of chemical elements in the Milky Way and study the birth and death of stars. To find these chemical elements, COSI will look at gamma rays that originated when massive stars exploded in our galaxy. This will help create a map of chemical elements released by the explosions and where they formed across the Milky Way.
“For more than 60 years, NASA has provided opportunities for inventive, smaller-scale missions to fill knowledge gaps where we still seek answers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “COSI will answer questions about the origin of the chemical elements in our own Milky Way galaxy, the very ingredients critical to the formation of Earth itself.”
The telescope will also explore the hazy origins of our galaxy’s positrons, subatomic particles that have a positive charge and a mass comparable to an electron, which has a negative charge. Positrons, largely found in space, are also known as antielectrons.
The technology behind this telescope has been in development for decades and most recently flew on NASA’s super pressure balloon in 2016. The COSI initiative originated as one of 18 proposals submitted to NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program in 2019. Now, the telescope has been chosen for further development. The mission is expected to cost $145 million, not including the launch.
John Tomsick will be the mission’s principal investigator at the University of California, Berkeley.
New wave of space exploration
This won’t be NASA’s first project to bear the name “Compton.” The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, launched in 1991, was one of the agency’s four Great Observatories designed to explore our sky through different wavelengths of light.
The other Great Observatories still operating include the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Compton was decommissioned in 2000, when one of its gyroscopes failed. The Spitzer Space Telescope retired in 2020.
But new telescopes are preparing to launch and explore the universe in innovative ways.
It’s going to be a busy decade, with the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled to launch in December, followed by the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope in the mid-2020s, and now Compton in 2025.