Penn State University: NASA selects STAR-X for $3M mission concept study

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STAR-X, a proposed space mission that includes Penn State astronomer Niel Brandt, is one of two proposed missions selected by the NASA Explorers Program to receive $3 million for a nine-month detailed study of mission requirements. At the end of this period, one of the missions will be selected for a target launch date in 2027-28 and be eligible for up to $300 million in additional funding. STAR-X could be used to investigate supermassive black holes, among other cosmic objects.

Composed of an X-ray telescope, an ultraviolet (UV) telescope, and a responsive spacecraft, STAR-X is designed to conduct time-domain surveys, which study how astronomical objects change with time, and to respond rapidly to transient cosmic events discovered by other observatories such as LIGO, Rubin LSST, the Roman Space Telescope, and the Square Kilometer Array. The mission is led by Principal Investigator William Zhang at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. Penn State’s Brandt, who is the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Professor of Physics, is involved in planning the STAR-X cosmic X-ray surveys, active galaxy studies, and fast X-ray transient studies.

“I can’t wait to use STAR-X to investigate the first supermassive black holes and understand mysterious, explosive X-ray transient sources,” said Brandt. “STAR-X will also provide the essential X-ray and UV follow-up capabilities for remarkable cosmic objects discovered by the Rubin LSST in optical light.”

The STAR-X spacecraft would be able to turn rapidly to point a sensitive wide-field X-ray telescope and a UV telescope at transient cosmic sources, such as supernova explosions and feeding supermassive black holes. Deep X-ray surveys would map black holes and hot gas trapped in distant clusters of galaxies; combined with infrared observations from NASA’s upcoming Roman Space Telescope, these observations would trace how massive clusters of galaxies built up over cosmic history.

STAR-X would provide revolutionary capabilities including unprecedented X-ray and UV volumetric survey speed; a unique combination of large field-of-view, large X-ray collecting area, low background, and excellent imaging; increased sensitivity for characterizing diffuse emissions, and increased speed and sensitivity for the discovery of faint X-ray point sources. It fills the gap in X-ray and UV survey coverage, providing simultaneous X-ray and UV observations, which are among the earliest and most uniquely informative astrophysical signals that probe the inner regions around compact objects like black holes and neutron stars, and it complements optical, infrared, and gravitational wave facilities.

The mission’s Deputy Principal Investigator, Ann Hornschemeier, who is also Lab Chief for X-ray Astrophysics at GSFC, earned a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, mentored by Brandt, in 2002.

“Ann is superb — a bundle of energy, and the right person to push STAR-X to succeed,” said Brandt.

NASA Explorer missions conduct focused scientific investigations and develop instruments that fill scientific gaps between the agency’s larger space science missions. The proposals were competitively selected based on potential science value and feasibility of development plans. The Explorers Program is the oldest continuous NASA program and is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the Science Mission Directorate’s astrophysics and heliophysics programs.

“NASA’s Explorers Program has a proud tradition of supporting innovative approaches to exceptional science, and these selections hold that same promise,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “From studying the evolution of galaxies to explosive, high-energy events, these proposals are inspiring in their scope and creativity to explore the unknown in our universe.”

Since the launch of Explorer 1 in 1958, which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts, the Explorers Program has launched more than 90 missions, including the Uhuru and Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) missions that led to Nobel prizes for their investigators.

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