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NASA, Caltech mull over unique satellite donation

Posted: February 10, 2012

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NASA cut off financial support for operations of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer this week, but the California Institute of Technology is negotiating to assume ownership of the ultraviolet space telescope to continue its survey of the cosmos, according to agency officials.

Artist's concept of the GALEX spacecraft in orbit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Also known as GALEX, the satellite was placed in standby mode Feb. 7 after collecting its last science observation for NASA. The space agency is suspending its budget for the mission after a review of operating missions by senior astronomers ranked GALEX lower than other projects seeking a limited supply of funding.

"NASA cannot accept external funding to extend missions," said Jaya Bajpayee, program executive for operating astrophysics missions at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We are, however, investigating the feasibility of transferring GALEX and its associated ground equipment to Caltech under the Stevenson-Wydler Act."

The Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act allows the transfer of government-owned excess research equipment to educational institutions and non-profit organizations.

"This would not involve compensation from Caltech," said Trent Perrotto, a NASA spokesperson. "It would be a transfer of ownership."

NASA has donated artifacts and ground hardware under the act, but the agency has never transferred ownership of an operating satellite in space. Commercial satellites, on the other hand, are often purchased and sold while in orbit.

"At this time, Caltech is performing its due diligence to determine if it will accept these assets," Bajpayee said, adding NASA expects to receive a decision from Caltech by March 31.

"At that time, we will either transfer the satellite and associated ground equipment to Caltech or decommission the satellite," Bajpayee said.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corp. and launched from a jet aircraft in 2003, the 609-pound satellite is circling 430 miles above Earth. One of its detectors, which observed in far-ultraviolet light, stopped functioning in 2009.

GALEX and its 19.7-inch telescope spent nearly eight years surveying the ultraviolet cosmos, observing more than 80 percent of the sky and peering back in time 10 billion years to learn how galaxies and stars formed and matured in the early universe.

The mission's life-cycle cost to NASA was $150.6 million, according to Perrotto.

GALEX collected this mosaic of Mira, a red giant star in the constellation Cetus, in late 2006. A tail stretching 13 light years long appeared in ultraviolet light behind Mira, which is charging through interstellar gas at a relative speed of 291,000 mph. Leaving a wake like a ship in calm seas, Mira is a variable star and can sometimes be seen with the naked eye, but its tail was never observed before GALEX produced this mosaic. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert (OCIW)
Composed of respected independent astronomers, a senior review in 2010 ranked GALEX eighth of 11 operating projects under consideration for mission extensions. The review recommended closing out the GALEX mission in fiscal year 2013, but NASA terminated the mission early in a move to save money. The space agency continues funding data archiving and analysis through the summer of 2012.

In the final months of the mission, GALEX was working on surveys of the galactic plane, magellanic clouds, and ultraviolet observations of the same stars being studied by NASA's Kepler telescope,, which is seeking evidence of extrasolar planets in a patch of sky in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra.

Astronomers say the observations of the Kepler field will help planet-hunting researchers narrow their focus on nearby, hard-to-see stars that could harbor easier-to-see solar systems.

GALEX never studied those regions before because of concerns bright ultraviolet emissions could damage the instrument's detectors. After relaxing those constraints late in the mission, officials began expanding the areas of the sky available for surveys.

"This constraint had limited our sky coverage, particularly in the Milky Way's galactic plane and nearby galaxies (the magellanic clouds)," said Chris Martin, GALEX's principal investigator at Caltech, in an email to Spaceflight Now. "So our future plan would include completing the all-sky survey, as well as dedicated surveys for transient objects such as the very bright and short early phase of a supernova explosion, and the UV flares from the disruption of stars by massive black holes."

Until officials make a final decision on the future of GALEX, the spacecraft will quietly orbit in a sun-pointing orientation to keep its batteries charged, according to Kerry Erickson, NASA's GALEX project manager.

"The science instrument is off and an optical wheel in the telescope has been rotated to its opaque position to protect the detectors," Erickson said. "The transmitter is off but can be turned on by ground command to obtain spacecraft status information."

Erickson said the spacecraft is in "excellent health" other than the detector failure, which was attributed to an internal short in 2009.