A B.C. astronomer is scrambling to find funding to maintain a successful and still productive Canadian space telescope after the Canadian Space Agency cut its support this week.
Launched in 2003, the suitcase-sized satellite called MOST was Canada's first space telescope and has revealed important details about planets outside our solar system.
University of British Columbia astronomer Jaymie Matthews, who spearheaded the mission, says the telescope is still providing scientists with important information about stars and planets.
“MOST is in some sense one of the only games in town for this kind of space astronomy," he added.
The satellite was originally intended as a one-year mission to observe the vibrations of 10 stars. Those vibrations provide astronomers with information about the temperature, pressure and composition inside stars, similar to the way seismologists study the interior of the Earth through earthquake vibrations. They can also be used to measure a star's age.
Now approaching its 11-year anniversary, the satellite has collected data on more than 5,000 stars. In 2011, it confirmed the existence of a scorching-hot “super-Earth” — a planet slightly larger than ours — orbiting a nearby star. It has also gathered information about the atmospheres and climates of planets outside our solar system, and it continues to search for other Earth-sized planets.
"The breadth of science is far beyond original purposes," said Matthews. "Our satellite performed better than planned in almost every way."
Budget constraints 'put a straitjacket on scientists'
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced on Wednesday that the mission will end on Sept. 9, having "exceeded its objectives."
"MOST has been an outstanding Canadian science success story," wrote Gilles Leclerc, the agency’s director general for space exploration, in a statement. "MOST has produced over 100 scientific publications. Its discoveries have literally rewritten astronomy textbooks."
But a 2013 evaluation "weighed the mission’s ongoing operational costs against its objectives" and recommended that the mission be ended, according to a CSA news release.
The move comes as the CSA struggles to save money after the federal government announced a 10 per cent cut to its $300-million budget back in 2012.
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Matthews believes the CSA’s budgetary constraints have "put a straitjacket on scientists" in a country that has been a world leader in space innovation.
"We want to own the podium," he said. "But this is an indication of how tenuous is our hold on that podium."
Crowdfunding space missions
Matthews said he will consider all options to keep the satellite in orbit, and that includes a direct appeal to the public.
He would not be the first to try crowdsourcing funds for satellites.
In 2013, a Silicon Valley startup successfully raised $117,000 on Kickstarter to launch a satellite that sent photos of the Earth back to sponsors using a cellphone app.
And on Apr. 14, former NASA employees launched a campaign to raise $125,000 to revive a retired 1970s satellite that has been floating through space since the 1990s. They have currently raised roughly 60 per cent of that amount.
Matthews believes that MOST stands a good chance of raising crowdsourced cash, since it is already operational and has a proven scientific legacy.
“I’m not naive about the challenges,” he said. “But it’s not an unrealistic goal.”
He has not yet launched a crowdfunding campaign.
Foreign government funding
He will also look at foreign funding agencies, though he said it "would be a shame to hand over the reins to another country."
The MOST mission cost around $10 million to develop, and now costs around $500,000 annually to maintain. Matthews said that price tag is "chump change" for a space mission — he calls the satellite “the Canadian Tire of space telescopes."
In 2013, the agency also launched BRITE, a small constellation of car-battery-sized satellites that have been studying star vibrations alongside MOST.
But Matthews said that BRITE does not have the same precision as MOST and that the mission was designed to supplement MOST, not to replace it.
In late 2012, a review of Canada’s aerospace sector found that the space agency had “foundered” for a decade, partly due to unpredictable funding.
In response, the government unveiled a new plan for the space program in February that pledged $17 million to help build NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
No other money was promised to the CSA, meaning that the agency will turn increasingly to partnerships with the private sector.