NASA selects COSI mission to study Milky Way evolution

photo of a telescope
Copyright: COSI Team Northrop Grumman/File
UC Berkeley's Compton Spectrometer and Imager, or COSI, was selected by NASA to lead the development of a new telescope aimed at studying and understanding the Milky Way galaxy's evolution.

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NASA has selected the Compton Spectrometer and Imager, or COSI, mission, led by the Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL, at UC Berkeley, to head the development of a new telescope aimed at understanding the evolution of the Milky Way galaxy.

COSI is a novel gamma-ray telescope, according to Steven Boggs, deputy principal investigator of the mission. He said in an email it is designed to study nuclear physics and high energy physics processes in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond with “unprecedented capability.”

“From my perspective, this decision by NASA indicates a great confidence in SSL and in Berkeley to be able to take on many complex missions at once,” said Steven Beckwith, director of SSL, in an email.

Boggs noted that the development of COSI began in the 1990s when many relevant technologies were developed and tested in the SSL and on NASA scientific balloons, which are designed to take instruments to the edge of space for hours to weeks.

COSI has a wide field of view and is able to observe the entire sky every day, noted Andreas Zoglauer, project scientist of the mission. Scientists will use COSI to determine where gamma rays are coming from and eventually make maps of the galaxy with high energy resolution, according to Zoglauer.

“COSI will be much more sensitive than any other instrument in this energy range,” Zoglauer said in an email “Therefore, there is a large discovery space.”

One of the primary objectives of COSI is to study the creation and evolution of new elements in the Milky Way by measuring radioactive emissions produced through the process of creation, according to Boggs. Another objective is to “map the distribution of antimatter electron annihilations in our galaxy.”

John Tomsick, principal investigator of the mission, added that other goals are to detect gamma rays from merging neutron stars and report the location to the world. COSI will also tell scientists how high-energy emission from accreting black holes is produced.

“The importance of understanding our own Milky Way galaxy, first of all, is that this is our home galaxy,” said campus graduate student Hannah Gulick, who is working on the COSI mission. “We can apply what we find here to galaxies much, much further out in the universe and understand the universe better as a whole, which I think is super cool. We can look at something so close to us and understand how something billions of light-years away from us behaves.”

According to Gulick, the project will be collaborative as institutions nationally and internationally will help to make different components. She said a significant portion of the assemblage and testing will be done in the SSL.

The proposed launch date of the mission is 2025, according to Gulick. Initial plans call for two years in orbit but if all “goes well and stays well,” the team hopes to operate COSI for much longer, Zoglauer added.

Lauren Good is a higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @lgooddailycal.