Monday, April 13, 2015

The MOST Space Telescope Joins the Private Sector

          By Ross Gillett

It looked like "curtains" for the plucky Microvariability and Oscillation of STars (MOST) micro-satellite in April 2014 when the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced that funding would be withdrawn as of September 9th 2014.

An April 13th, 2015 screenshot of the UBC webpage for the MOST space telescope, which lists the partners who contributed to the ongoing success of the mission and some of the more recent discoveries. Graphic c/o

But with the assistance of many of the same scientists and engineers who helped design, manufacture and launch the satellite in 2003, MOST remains operational and capable of contributing new data for scientific research.

MOST was designed, manufactured, and launched under prime contract to the CSA and led by the team of engineers who later formed Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI). After the launch in June 2003, MSCI commissioned the spacecraft and has operated it ever since. Since then the spacecraft has executed the MOST mission in partnership with the science team led by principal investigator Jayme Matthews and the University of British Columbia (UBC).

The results have been spectacular - exceeding expectations on all fronts including spacecraft performance, quality of the scientific data, and spacecraft longevity.

MOST, nicknamed the “humble space telescope,” has already outlasted the similarly-tasked French Space Agency (CNES) COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits (COROT) telescope and the NASA Kepler spacecraft to contribute enormously to the global body of astronomical knowledge – a contribution well out of proportion to its very modest $10Mln CDN capital cost.

UBC professor and MOST principal investigator Jaymie Matthews with the MOST telescope prior to its launch in 2003. Although officially de-funded by the CSA in September 2014, the satellite was acquired by MSCI in October 2014 and remains available for use on a rental basis. Photo c/o CSA.

However, by April 2014, the MOST mission in CSA had run its course. Shifting government priorities brought on by pressure from the Canadian space science community for new initiatives resulted in elimination of government funding for continuing MOST operations after September 2014.

During the summer of 2014 MSCI evaluated the business potential for continuing MOST operations without Canadian government funding, driven by two key factors:
  • MSCI engineers had gained tremendous insight into the operation of the MOST satellite over the 11 years and determined that the satellite still had several more years of predicted life remaining; and
  • There was still strong interest from the international science community to use MOST as a platform for astro-seismology and exo-planet discovery.
MSCI and CSA agreed to an outside process for establishing the value of the MOST satellite and reached agreement for MSCI to acquire the satellite and its operating license in October 2014.  The MOST transition to industry correlated well with both MSCI business strategy and CSA policy for industry support.

Since October 2014 MOST has been in commercial operation and is currently performing observations for its third consecutive client.  MOST observations remain almost fully booked to the end of summer 2015 at time of writing, and it is anticipated that this success will continue for the remainder of its operational life.

Science activities include star oscillations, exo-planet discovery, and even asteroid tracking similar to the mission performed by its cousin, the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat).

Ross Gillett
In essence, this has been a win-win scenario for everyone involved with the program. It has been gratifying to see this Canadian success story continue to remain healthy and useful, and to produce high quality data for the international science community well into its "retirement" years.

Ross Gillett is the director of microsatellite programs at Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI). 

He has worked for more than 20 years in the Canadian aerospace industry beginning with the Canadian space station program at Spar Aerospace Limited, which was later acquired by MDA Space Missions, before joining MSCI in 2007. 

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