Canada's tiny space telescope marks 10th anniversary
Helping to lay roadmap in search for life outside Earth
One of this country's most notable achievements will be spending Canada Day weekend marking its own milestone anniversary in a unique place, floating up in space.
After 10 years in the ether, several times farther from Earth than the International Space Station, it remains the world's smallest space telescope.
MOST was also Canada's first-ever space telescope when it was launched into space on June 30, 2003.
Project head Jaymie Matthews just can't stop singing its praises. Why? Because the suitcase-sized satellite, which cost the federal space program $10 million, has been helping to lay a roadmap for where to search for life outside our planet.
It has helped make Canada a leader in the field of micro satellites.
But Matthews is particularly enthused about all the other possibilities that might be opened up by the 60-kilogram MOST.
The colourful University of British Columbia astrophysicist firmly believes there is life outside our solar system.
"Certainly simple forms of life like microbial life is probably very common — and I hope complex life," Matthews said in a recent interview. "If it's out there, we're finding the places where it's most likely to live."
MOST stands for "microvariability and oscillations of stars," the type of data it has been collecting over the past decade.
The space telescope, which is orbiting 820 kilometres above the Earth, was only supposed to have an 18-month mission to observe 10 stars.
But it's looked at more than 5,000 stars over 10 years.
Matthews said MOST has been doing science it was never intended to do and looking at parts of the sky he never thought would be accessible.
The Canadian Space Agency mission has determined the characteristics of two exoplanets that are circling two bright stars.
Exoplanets are planets that orbit a star outside our solar system.
"One of them (55 Cancri e) is this super-exotic, super-Earth that goes around its star in 17 hours and 41 minutes," Matthews said.
Study of planet possibly with diamond core
"Science is now outpacing science fiction."
A super-Earth is a planet that has a mass larger than our own planet, but smaller in size than a planet like Uranus which is 14 times larger than Earth.
"Our determination of the planet's properties led theorists to claim this planet has a carbon-rich interior and the core could be essentially diamond."
"The other (HD 97658 b) is a planet that may have a rocky, maybe solid metallic, core and liquid mantle atmosphere," he said.
Just recently, three planets that could potentially support alien life were discovered by researchers around a star (Gliese 667C) that's orbited by at least six planets.
The UBC scientist even boldly predicted that one of the hundreds of Grade Four students he's met may eventually be making a big announcement.
Evidence of life in 20 years?
"On a time scale of 10, maybe 20 years, there will be somebody who will be announcing the first evidence of life," he said.
Matthews also boasted that MOST could even outlast two bigger and more expensive space telescopes.
NASA's $600 million Kepler telescope, which also hunts planets, recently lost two of its four reaction wheels which act as gyroscopes. The 1,000-kilogram satellite was sent into orbit around the sun in 2009 and scientists are trying to save it.
The main computers have also failed on the COROT space telescope, a French space agency mission launched in 2006, which Matthews said cost $250 million.
"We went up three-and-a-half years before the COROT mission and more than six-and-a-half years before the NASA Kepler mission," he noted.
"Suddenly Canada had a front-row seat doing the kind of science which normally had an admission price of millions of dollars and we did it first and set the way."
David Cooper, is the CEO of Microsat Systems Canada Inc. That company used to be the space division of Dynacon Inc., which was the lead contractor for MOST.
Telescope only expected to last 18 months
He said that when the space telescope was being built, his engineers were concerned it would have a short lifespan because of radiation from the sun.
"They were predicting 18 months, maybe because they thought the radiation by that time would kill the electronics as it had killed other satellites," Cooper said.
"But we chose the parts very well and, 10 years later, the proof is in the pudding."
Cooper also said he expected MOST to continue to operate for several more years until it runs out of power that's being supplied by its solar panels.
"There's no reason that the satellite couldn't at least be partially functional, to do what it's doing for another three or four years," he said.
The technology developed for MOST has created a niche for Canada, which has become a developer of small, inexpensive satellites.
Clone satellite hunts asteroids
In February, an Indian rocket helped launch NEOSSat, a $12 million Canadian Space Agency asteroid-hunting satellite, which is a clone of MOST.
It was joined by Sapphire, Canada's first military satellite, which was also launched by the Indian Space Research Organization. Sapphire had a price tag of $65 million.
Two other car-battery-sized satellites, which are part of the BRITE Constellation series of six satellites, were also on board. They will eventually make up the first space astronomy mission, which will use "nanosats" to study the evolution of stars.
All six were designed by the Space Flight Laboratory at UTIAS, the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The BRITE (Bright Target Explorer) nanosatellites, a Canadian-Austrian-Polish collaboration, each weigh about seven kilos.
A nano satellite is described as a small satellite between one and 10 kilograms, while a micro satellite weighs between 10 and 100 kilograms.
Simon Grocott, the head of engineering at the U of T's SFL, said in an interview that the space-flight lab was first organized in order to build MOST.
Now, 10 years later, the Toronto lab is producing small satellites for countries that include Norway, Australia, and Slovenia which has ordered an Earth observation micro satellite.
Grocott said that when it comes to nano satellites, the Space Flight Lab is one of the most successful groups in the world.
"We've got 14 satellite programs in development — that's certainly more than any nanosatellite manufacturer around the world," he added.
"People are coming to us because of our experience and our capabilities in our area."