NASA selects UC Berkeley – Compton Spectrometer and Imager for next Explorers Program mission

NASA announced today that the next mission in its Explorers Program will be a spacecraft that studies cosmic explosions and their elemental debris. The space agency selected the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), to be built at the University of California Berkeley, in place of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) concept. Known as ESCAPE: the Extreme-ultraviolet Stellar Characterization for Atmospheric Physics and Evolution mission, whose aim was to identify the types of star-planet systems with atmospheres that are thick enough to support life.

“We’re extremely disappointed that ESCAPE was not selected,” says the mission’s Principal Investigator Kevin France, an astrophysicist at LASP and an associate professor in the university’s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS). “But we congratulate our colleagues at Berkeley and look forward to the exciting results the COSI mission will bring to the astronomical community.”

In 2020 NASA funded both proposals for a Phase A concept study. LASP received $2 million to further develop a novel instrument concept to measure the very faint radiation emanating from distant stars. The resulting data would be used to monitor how stellar flares can affect the atmospheres of planets orbiting these stars—and thus the potential for the planets circling them to host life.

“I’d like to thank our many partners on this proposal,” says France. “The team worked extremely hard to advance this concept, and their work will be useful for a more complete understanding of habitable planets in the future.” 

The ESCAPE team included researchers from the Ball Aerospace, Southwest Research Institute, and the National Solar Observatory, all based in Boulder, Colo., as well as science and technical partners at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and numerous other universities and science institutions around the world.

Additional ESCAPE team members from CU Boulder include Brian Fleming, the mission’s deputy principal investigator at LASP and a research professor in APS; Zachory Berta-Thompson and Adam Kowalski, assistant professors in APS; James Green, a professor in APS; Jeffrey Linksy of JILA; and Allison Youngblood, James Mason and Nick Kruczek, research scientists at LASP. Tom Patton leads the project’s engineering team at LASP.

LASP is a field-leading research institute that engages in the full cycle of space exploration, from conception to instrument and satellite design, mission operations, and scientific discovery. In addition to its involvement in numerous interplanetary missions, the Lab has played a leading role in developing small satellite technologies to address key scientific questions. LASP, which began a decade before NASA was founded, is the only research institute in the world to have sent instruments to all eight planets—and to Pluto.