Saturday, June 29, 2013

Happy 10th Birthday MOST

The MOST micro-satellite being prepared for  launch in 2002. On the left is principal investigator Jamie Matthews.
It's worth noting that Sunday, June 30th is the 10th anniversary of the launch of the still functioning Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) space telescope.

MOST, the first spacecraft focused on asteroseismology (the study the internal structure of pulsating stars by the interpretation of their frequency spectra), was also designed to use variations in stellar brightness to detect extrasolar planets in much the same way as the later French COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits (COROT) mission and the NASA Kepler Space Observatory.

However, both COROT (launched December 27th, 2006) and Kepler (launched March 7th, 2009) have recently shut down due to equipment failure.

As outlined in the June 25th, 2013 Sky and Telescope article "COROT Mission Ends," the French space agency finally threw in the towel a few days ago after failing in efforts to revive the satellite, which had stopped transmitting data in November 2012.

Kepler, although not formally lost yet, recently had a malfunction in the second of four "reaction wheels" required to point the spacecraft with the precision needed to detect new planets and the satellite has slipped automatically into a pre-programmed software mode designed to conserve energy. As outlined in the May 15th, 2013 Universe Today article "Kepler Planet-Hunting Mission in Jeopardy," there are "still possibilities of keeping the spacecraft in working order, or perhaps even finding other opportunities for different science for Kepler, something that doesn’t require such precise pointing abilities."

But MOST, much like the energizer bunny, just seems to keep going and going and going. It's looked at more than 5,000 stars over the last 10 years.

Even better, the cost for the micro-satellite, generally estimated at around $10Mln CDN for development (and a few extra millions for ongoing operations over the last decade) compares quite favorably with the estimated €170Mln Euro ($232Mln CDN) cost for COROT and the estimated $600Mln USD ($630Mln CDN) cost of Kepler.
Kieran Carroll.

According to Kieran Carroll, at the time the chief engineer for MOST and now the chief technology officer at Gedex Inc., from a programmatic perspective the project was something of an experiment by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), who set up their small payloads program to see what Canadian scientists and engineers could accomplish if given a "ridiculously low budget" to develop a space science "microsatellite" mission:
They didn't expect that a microsatellite could last for much longer than a year in orbit, because of the cut-rate engineering and parts they expected would need to be used to stay inside the tiny budget.
Instead we gave them an extremely high-performance satellite, doing first-rate science, that has lasted for 10 years. While the later satellites that were designed and built using the expensive "best practices" approach favoured by the big space agencies, failed after 3.5 and 6 years respectively...
The methodology used to build MOST, which allowed the use of high-quality but inexpensive, "commercial-grade" electronic parts rather than insisting on using extremely-expensive "space-grade" parts, eventually found a new home at the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) in Toronto, Ontario where (as outlined most recently in the May 27th, 2013 post "Canadian Satellites Designed, Built and Launched for $1Mln Each") low cost satellites continue to be built and launched with regularity.

MOST, launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on June 30th, 2003, was the first Canadian science satellite since the second of the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS II) was launched in 1971.

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