Science and Innovation

NASA’s CHESS Mission to Probe Interstellar Cloud

NASA's CHESS Mission to Probe Interstellar Cloud

The third flight for the NASA-funded CHESS mission to probe how the interstellar cloud is structured is scheduled to take place on June 27.

CHESS – short for the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph – is a sounding rocket payload that will fly on a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket, NASA said.

This would be the third flight for the CHESS payload in the past three years, and the mission’s most detailed survey yet, the US space agency added.

Space between distant stars is not empty. Instead, there drift vast clouds of neutral atoms and molecules, as well as charged plasma particles called the interstellar medium – that may, over millions of years, evolve into new stars and even planets.

These floating interstellar reservoirs are the focus of the CHESS sounding rocket mission, which will check out the earliest stages of star formation.

CHESS measures light filtering through the interstellar medium to study the atoms and molecules within, which provides crucial information for understanding the lifecycle of stars.

“The interstellar medium pervades the galaxy,” said Kevin France, the CHESS Principal Investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“When massive stars explode as supernovae, they expel this raw material. It’s the insides of dead stars, turning into the next generation of stars and planets,” France said.

CHESS would train its eye at Beta Scorpii – a hot, brightly shining star in the Scorpius constellation well-positioned for the instrument to probe the material between the star and our own solar system.

As light from Beta Scorpii streams toward Earth, atoms and molecules – including carbon, oxygen and hydrogen – block the light to varying degrees along the way.

Scientists know which wavelengths are blocked by what, so by looking at how much light reaches the space around Earth, they can assess all sorts of details about the space it travelled through to get there.

CHESS data provides observations such as which atoms and molecules are present in space, their temperatures and how fast they are moving.

The scientists also use CHESS data to evaluate how the interstellar cloud is structured, which can help them pinpoint where it stands in the process of star formation.

The flight of a sounding rocket is a short one. CHESS would fly for about 16 minutes total.

Just six-and-a-half of those minutes are spent making observations between 90 and 200 miles above the surface? Observations that can only be made in space, above the atmosphere, which the far-ultraviolet light that CHESS observes cannot penetrate.

After the flight, the payload parachutes to the ground, where it can be recovered for future flights.