Science & Environment

A private company has an audacious plan to rescue NASA’s last “Great Observatory” – Ars Technica

Enlarge / An artist’s conception of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in deep area.


A Delta II rocket launched the Spitzer Space Telescope 20 years in the past, boosting it to an Earth-trailing orbit, the place it drifted away from our planet at a charge of about 15 million kilometers a 12 months. It was the last of NASA’s 4 “Great Observatories” put into area from 1990 to 2003.

Over its deliberate five-year lifetime, the infrared area telescope carried out its job nicely, serving to astronomers uncover newly forming stars, observe exoplanets, and examine galaxies. After greater than seven years, as anticipated by scientists, the onboard provide of liquid helium ran out. Without this coolant, a few of Spitzer’s scientific devices have been unavailable. So its operators switched to “warm mission” mode, taking knowledge from two of its shortwave channels.

The area telescope continued working till about three years in the past, when the spacecraft started to overheat every time it wanted to level again towards Earth for communications. By this time, because it drifted farther from Earth, it was shut to being on the other aspect of the Sun. This meant that working the telescope, and having it telephone residence from time to time, would irreparably injury Spitzer’s remaining scientific devices.

And so in January 2020, after greater than 16 years of service, the Spitzer Space Telescope was deactivated—consigned to drift in a heliocentric orbit till the Sun’s fiery growth on the finish of its life a couple of billion years from now.

Or was it?

A small area know-how company, Rhea Space Activity, says it has a plan to resurrect Spitzer. Last week the firm said it gained a $250,000 grant from the US Space Force to proceed learning a robotic rescue mission for the spacecraft, which is now about two astronomical items—or twice the gap of Earth from the Sun—away.

The plan is relatively audacious, but it surely has some severe backers, together with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Blue Sun Enterprises, and Lockheed Martin.

“When it comes to robotic space servicing, this would be the most ambitious thing ever done,” stated Shawn Usman, an astrophysicist who’s the founder and chief govt of Rhea Space Activity, in an interview with Ars. “I mean, it is literally sending a satellite to the other side of the Sun to resurrect the last Great Observatory. So I think it would be pretty ambitious, but it’d be really great if we could pull it off.”

The “Spitzer Resurrector” mission could be a small spacecraft that would match right into a 1-meter-by-1-meter field and be prepared to launch as quickly as 2026, Usman stated. It would then take about three years to cruise to the telescope, throughout which era the spacecraft will make observations of photo voltaic flaring.

“We plan to be busy right from the start of the mission,” stated Howard Smith, an astronomer on the Center for Astrophysics, which is operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian, who’s concerned within the proposed rescue flight.

Once the resurrector spacecraft reaches the telescope, it could fly round at a distance of 50 to 100 km to characterize Spitzer’s health. Then it could try to set up communications with the telescope and start to relay data forwards and backwards between the bottom and telescope. This would permit scientists to restart observations.

Rhea Space Activity, which is called after the Greek goddess and presently has fewer than 10 workers, is in search of a bigger grant from the navy and, finally, full funding for a mission anticipated to price about $350 million.

“It’s a very beautiful collaboration between a private space company, academic research institutions, and the US Space Force,” stated Giovanni Fazio, a Harvard University astronomer who was the principal investigator of the Infrared Array Camera on Spitzer.

Commercial servicing

The effort by Rhea Space is a part of an rising pattern within the business area trade. Northrop Grumman has been growing and launching a collection of “mission extension” automobiles to service satellites in geostationary orbit. Billionaire Jared Issacman is working with SpaceX and NASA to use a Crew Dragon car to lengthen the lifetime of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The autonomous satellite tv for pc know-how developed by Rhea Space might have a number of functions for transferring and servicing satellites in low-Earth and geostationary orbit. It is for these in-space servicing, meeting, and manufacturing capabilities that the Department of Defense is . Last 12 months the White House published a report stating that advancing authorities and business capabilities in these areas was a precedence for the United States.

Usman stated the company has already had discussions with NASA in regards to the mission, and the company is probably going to log out on a rescue try. The area company would welcome the return of Spitzer not just for scientific functions, but additionally to assist characterize the specter of near-Earth asteroids.

But is Spitzer healthy in any case this time? Two a long time have handed since Spitzer launched, and the Resurrector mission is not going to attain it earlier than the tip of this decade.

“The solar cells may be degraded, and there may be meteorite impacts,” Fazio stated. “So it’s an uncertainty what condition the telescope is in. But our best estimate is that it will still be in an operating condition.”

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