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Cosmic Origins Projects

Operating Missions

Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope
Launch Date: 24 April 1990

The Hubble Space Telescope's launch in 1990 sped humanity to one of its greatest advances in that journey. Hubble is a telescope that orbits Earth. Its position above the atmosphere, which distorts and blocks the light that reaches our planet, gives it a view of the universe that typically far surpasses that of ground-based telescopes. Hubble is one of NASA's most successful and long-lasting science missions. It has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, shedding light on many of the great mysteries of astronomy. Its gaze has helped determine the age of the universe, the identity of quasars, and the existence of dark energy.

Hubble's Legacy: Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, Built It, and Observed the Universe with It, Roger D. Launius, David DeVorkin (Volume editor), based upon talks given at a public symposium in November 2009 at the National Air and Space Museum [Synopsis][Download]

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy

SOFIA is the largest airborne observatory in the world, and makes observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes. NASA and the German space agency, DLR, worked together to create SOFIA - a Boeing 747-SP aircraft modified to accommodate a 2.5 meter gyro-stabilized telescope. It is used to study many different kinds of astronomical objects and phenomena during its long lifetime, including: stellar birth and death, the formation of new solar systems, complex molecules in space, our solar system, ecosystems of galaxies, and black holes at the center of galaxies. While SOFIA is its own program (and hence not formally within Cosmic Origins), its primary scientific drivers are aligned with Cosmic Origins questions.

Spitzer Space Telescope
Spitzer Space Telescope
Launch Date: 25 August 2003

The Spitzer Space Telescope is designed to provide information which will help us understand our cosmic roots, and how galaxies, stars and planets develop and form. During its cryogenic mission, Spitzer obtained images and spectra by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, radiated by objects in space between wavelengths of 3 and 180 microns (1 micron is one-millionth of a meter). Infrared light can penetrate the vast, dense clouds of gas and dust which block our view at visible wavelengths, allowing us to peer into regions of star formation, the centers of galaxies, and into newly forming planetary systems.

Missions in Development, Concept, or Study

James Webb Space Telescope
James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope, designed to be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. Webb will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy. It will peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting star formation in our own galaxy with the Solar System. Webb's instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range. While JWST is its own program (and hence not formally within Cosmic Origins), its primary scientific drivers are aligned with Cosmic Origins questions.


WFIRST was the top space-based recommendation in the 2010 "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy & Astrophysics." The AFTA Study examines cost-effective ways to achieve the strongly endorsed WFIRST science goals. Although the AFTA Study is part of the Exoplanet Exploration Program, AFTA will yield significant contributions to COR science. The COR Program is supporting detector development work for the AFTA Study.

UV/Optical Telescope Study

Recommended by the 2010 "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics" report, a UV/Optical telescope as a successot to HST is being studied. The instrumentation being considered includes high-efficiency UV and optical cameras / spectrographs operating at shorter wavelengths than HST, with the possibility of internal coronagraphs or external star-shades. NASA's Cosmic Origins Program is investing in essential technologies such as detectors, coatings, and optics, to prepare for a mission to be considered by the 2020 decadal survey.

Emeritus Missions

GALEX Observatory
GALEX Observatory
Launch date: 28 April 2003
Stopped operations: 28 June 2013

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) is an orbiting space telescope that observes galaxies in ultraviolet light. Since its launch in 2003, the mission has surveyed tens of thousands of galaxies in ultraviolet light across nine billion years of time. The mission's science goals include mapping the history of star formation in the universe and performing ultraviolet all-sky imaging and ultraviolet wide-area spectroscopic surveys.

Final observations will be made public in 2014.

Herschel Space Observatory
Herschel Space Observatory
Launch Date: 14 May 2009
Stopped operations: 17 June 2013

The Herschel Space Observatory is a space-based telescope that is studying the light of the Universe in the far-infrared and submillimeter portions of the spectrum. It is revealing new information about the earliest, most distant stars and galaxies, as well as those closer to home in space and time. It is also taking a unique look at our own Solar System.

Much of the Universe consists of gas and dust that is far too cold to radiate in visible light or at shorter wavelengths such as x-rays. However, even at temperatures well below the most frigid spot on Earth, they do radiate at far-infrared and submillimeter wavelengths.

Post operations data refinement will continue until 2017.

Widefield Infrared Survey
Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer
Launch Date: 14 December 2009
Stopped operations: 17 February 2011

WISE spent over a year imaging the entire sky at each of four wavelengths that ranged from 5 to 35 times longer than the longest waves that the human eye can see. During the course of the mission, WISE took millions of infrared images. Using its tremendous coverage, WISE is being employed to find the coldest brown dwarf stars, to find the most luminous galaxies in the universe, and to catalog the hundreds of millions of infrared-bright stars, galaxies, dust clouds, and more. Besides surveying the infrared sky, WISE also had a second purpose. The NEOWISE Survey used the infrared telescope to survey the small bodies, asteroids, and comets in our solar system.

A complete reprocessing of the WISE data set, AllWISE, will be released in 2013.

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  • NASA Official: Phil Newman
  • Web Curator: Pat Tyler
Goddard Space Flight Center