NASA has successfully launched the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS, payload aboard a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket to peer at a place where new stars are born. “These atoms are the raw materials, the very building blocks for the next generation of stars and planets,” Kevin France at the University of Colorado at Boulder said. “We’re making detailed measurements of how many atoms have transitioned into molecules, which is the very first step toward star formation,” he said.
The sounding rocket payload, Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph or CHESS, launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. CHESS is equipped with what’s known as a spectrograph, which can parse out just how much of any given wavelength of light is present.
CHESS will soar above Earth’s atmosphere to look at the ultraviolet light from a bright star – light that is blocked by the atmosphere and can’t be seen from the ground. As this light courses toward Earth, it bumps into the interstellar atoms and molecules along the way, each of which can block certain wavelengths of light. Scientists know which wavelength is blocked by what, so by measuring what light is missing, they can map out the atoms and molecules that are present in space.
The CHESS spectrograph provides such detailed and comprehensive observations that it can measure not only what atoms and molecules are present, but how fast they are moving and how turbulent the gas is. Together, this information helps characterize how mature a given cloud of dust is.