Monday, May 05, 2014

MOST & ISEE-3: "Abandonware" Satellites Adopted by the Public

          by Brian Orlotti

Two private-sector efforts have recently emerged to resurrect satellites abandoned by government space agencies.

The MOST space telescope, shown here during testing by Jaymie Matthews before its launch in 2003, was officially retired by the Canadian Space Agency last week, although the decision seems to be not completely up to them. Photo c/o CSA.

On April 30th, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced that it will end its support for the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) space telescope on Sept 9th.

Launched in 2003, MOST (aka the "Humble Space Telescope") was Canada's first space telescope and one of the great success stories of Canadian science. Funded by the CSA at a cost of $10Mln CDN, the satellite was originally intended to be a one-year mission to observe the vibrations of 10 stars in order to provide astronomers with information about the stars' temperature, pressure, interior composition and even age.

Data from MOST has spawned over 100 scientific papers and rewritten astronomy textbooks with important information on planets beyond Earth's solar system. To date, the space telescope has collected data on over 5,000 stars. In 2011, MOST confirmed the existence of 55 Cancri e, a "super-Earth" orbiting the nearby star 55 Cancri A. It continues to gather information on the atmospheres and climates of planets outside our solar system, as well as search for other Earth-sized planets.

In 2013, a CSA review determined that MOST's operational costs exceeded its benefits and recommended that the mission be terminated. The cancellation of MOST can be seen as a cost-cutting measure prompted by the Harper Government's 10% cut to the CSA's budget in 2012, as outlined in the April 9th, 2012 Canadian Press article "Canadian space programs face budget cuts, layoffs."

But MOST project lead Jaymie Matthews, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia (UBC), has stated his intention to keep MOST going via other funding channels, including corporate sponsorship's, crowd funding, and foreign investors. MOST's yearly operating cost is about $500,000 CDN and dirt-cheap by space industry standards. Matthews is confident in MOST's chances of raising additional funds since it remains operational and has a proven track-record of success.

SkyCube. Photo c/o Southern Stars.
And Matthews' plan is not without precedent.

In 2013, a Silicon Valley startup, Southern Stars Group LLC, successfully raised $117,000 on Kickstarter to build the SkyCube nano-satellite. Launched on an Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) Antares rocket on January 9th, 2014 and deployed from the International Space Station (ISS) on February 28th , SkyCube enables the public to send simple radio messages ("tweets from space") that amateur radio operators around the world can hear as well as request images of Earth from its on-board cameras via a smartphone application called Satellite Safari.

As of April 27th, SkyCube is still operational and there are also others.

As outlined in the May 2nd, 2014 article "Private Team Wants to Bring 36-Year-Old NASA Probe Out of Retirement," a team of ex-NASA personnel, engineers and programmers are also attempting to bring out of retirement the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) probe, which launched in 1978 and ceased science operations in 1997.

Called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, the initiative, led by Keith Cowing (a former NASA scientist and current editor of and Skycorp CEO Dennis Wingo, has launched a campaign on crowd-funding website Rockethub to raise $125,000 USD. As of May 4th , they have reached 69% of their target.

Cowing and Wingo are no strangers to reviving old technology, having created the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), a private effort to extract, digitize and archive the original analog data tapes from the five NASA Lunar Orbiter spacecraft sent to the Moon in 1966 and 1967.

Wingo even coined a new term for the endeavour: "techno-archeology."

The crowd-funding of the MOST space telescope and the ISEE-3 Reboot Project reflects both the continuing decline of government space programs and the increasing involvement of the private sector and the general public in space exploration. Government turning its back on our space heritage is unfortunate, but we can also see a new path taking shape.

Brian Orlotti.
New ventures, financed by those truly interested in space, more open to innovation and freed from the politics of indifference, will allow that heritage to not only survive, but to thrive.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

1 comment:

  1. Citizen science, crowd funding, crowd sourcing, and crowd computing are like a hypernova. Far away, but blindingly brilliant. And maybe not so far away...


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