One Small Cut by Obama – One Giant Loss for Mankind

Kepler Space Telescope

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the header of this blog, but I as soon as I read it, I realized it fit my topic nicely.

Four weeks ago, I wrote about the impending demise of the Hubble Space Telescope because there is no more Space Shuttle to make repairs or bring it spare parts. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the death of the Herschel Space Telescope, which occurred because it ran out of liquid helium – once again, because there is no more Space Shuttle.

Today I read of another likely casualty of Obama’s decision to prematurely retire our Space Shuttle fleet, a fleet that had only completed about 40% of its serviceable life expectancy. The Kepler Space Telescope, launched on March 7, 2009, will be the next victim of the budget cuts. A faulty steering wheel may end the mission of the $600 million telescope.

In order to keep its four solar panels facing the sun, Kepler must make a 90-degree roll every three months. One of the steering wheels failed last year and another failed last week. Kepler can continue to work for the next few months, and ground control will try a different mode of steering to keep it serviceable. But a house call by a mission specialist could have guaranteed that its mission continued for some time to come.

Kepler’s mission, expected to last until 2016, was to survey the Milky Way galaxy and uncover Earth-size planets that fall within the habitable zone. These discoveries would be used to estimate the number of Earth-size planets that exist in our galaxy and our known-universe. It would also reveal more about the orbits and distribution of other Earth-like planets, and give us a list of places where astronomers could search for extraterrestrial life. As of this January 2,740 Earth-sized exoplanets had been found in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, including a pair located just 1,200 light years away.

The James Webb Space Telescope,  scheduled to launch in 2018, will help in the search for exoplanets. Other planet-hunting missions include the ESA’s Cheops (CHaaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) launch in 2017, and a NASA 2017 launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

But in budget cut land, those launches are a long way away. I guess all we can do now is cross our fingers and elect an administration that has its priorities straight.


Look Out, Here Comes Another NEO – Asteroid QE2!

asteroid20130514-640Picture Eleanor Arroway (Contact)  sitting for hours in the desert with a towel on her head, pressing her headphones tight against her ears trying to hear anything that would sound remotely like ET. Oh how I’d love to be her!

While the research done by radio astronomers may include the search for ET, it also includes the task of searching for NEO’s or near earth asteroids.

According to NASA, an NEO will graze by Earth on May 31st.  OK, not so much of a graze but it IS in the neighborhood.  Asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail by earth at a distance of 3.6 million miles, or about 15 lunar distances. It’s about 1.7 miles across, or the size of 9 Queen Elizabeth 2’s.

This won’t make a great visual observing target, but the radio astronomers are ready to go! Radar images can resolve features on the asteroid as small as 12 feet across. Between May 30th and June 9th radio astronomers will be using both the Goldstone California’s Deep Space Network antenna and the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. (It’ll do!) Using both will maximize the information we can get during this brief encounter.

Stay tuned for images and updates!!

Hmmm – I think I have to watch Contact again. This time I’ll try not to sit two feet away from the screen with the surround sound blaring during the opening. Nope, sorry, I can’t resist!!

High Priestess of the Desert


Herschel Space Observatory Goes Dark

The ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory

Between the two of us, Amy and I have started many of the Astronomical League’s Observing Programs. Okay, we’ve started a lot more of them than we’ve finished, but that’s a sign of a curious mind, right?

A few AstroBabe meetings ago, we decided that we would break our “no more programs until we finish the ones we have” rule and go after something big – something that would really stretch our observing abilities. We agreed that it was time to start the Herschel, a really, really long-term project.

Unless you are already familiar with AL’s Herschel Observing Program, you have no idea what a commitment this is. If we knock off one or two Herschel objects a week, then in, oh, maybe 300-400 weeks, we’ll have it done. Yes, it’s a big deal, but on the way to finishing the Herschel program, we’ll also complete the Messier Program and the Binocular Messier Program. Three birds with one giant stone.

It seems ironic that we are beginning this quest just as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory made its last observation. The Observatory was named after William Herschel, the man who discovered infrared radiation in 1800.

Its mission has been to study the formation of stars and early galaxies, and it has surveyed thousands of galaxies during its four-year mission. The Herschel Observatory made over 35,000 observations and collected more than 25,000 hours worth of scientific data on objects that were previously invisible to us.

Launched by an Ariane 5 rocket on May 14, 2009, the Herschel Observatory has been parked at the second Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles from Earth. The school-bus sized observatory detected infrared wavelengths in a wide range of low temperatures, as low as ten degrees above absolute zero at far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

View of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion by the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

Because heat interfered with its observations, liquid helium was used to chill the temperature of the detectors to nearly absolute zero (-271 Celsius). When it launched, it brought 2,300 liters of this liquid helium along, which weighed 335 kg (739 lbs), nearly 10 percent of its original mass. It has been slowly using up and leaking a bit of that helium everyday.

It had been estimated that the Observatory would run out of helium in late March, but it managed to squeeze one more month of observing beyond that estimate. On April 29, during the spacecraft’s daily communication session with the ground crew in Western Australia, it reported a significant rise in temperature in all of its instruments, which meant it had finally ran out of liquid helium.

The Herschel Observatory’s mission will be carried on by the launch of a number of telescopes with infrared capabilities, including the Japanese Space Agency’s Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA) telescope (2017), the James Webb Space Telescope (2018), and the ESA’s Ritchey-Chretien telescope (2022).

Until then, there is plenty of data to study. Much of the data the Herschel collected is available through NASA’s Herschel Science Center at There is also more information on the mission itself on the ESA’s own website at

As for the Herschel Observatory itself? Later this month, it will be propelled into a no-return heliocentric orbit where it will take at least 300 years to return to earth on its own. But who knows? Maybe some ambitious future space clean-up crew will collect it and bring it back to Earth and park it in the Smithsonian where our grandchildren can go to see it.