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.


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.


The Clock is Ticking

Following its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubblehubble Space Telescope (HST) got off to a shaky start. But after the 1993 repair mission and four more house calls by Space Shuttle astronauts, the Hubble went on to observe more than 30,000 celestial targets and amass more than half a million pictures of our universe.

The Hubble was designed to be deployed, captured, and serviced by Space Shuttles, and now that the Shuttle program has ended, it’s just a matter of time before the Hubble goes dark. That time is sooner than we realize.

The HST is only expected to remain operational until some time next year, with scientists squeezing out every last possible photograph.

In the meantime, NASA is working on the Hubble’s replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018. Technology has moved forward since the launch pillars-of-creationof the Hubble in 1990, and the new $5 billion telescope will carry technology that is much more sophisticated. Slated to launch in 2014, JWST will orbit much higher than the Hubble (1 million miles from the Earth’s surface verses 347 miles) and will use infrared technology to peer much deeper into our universe.

The original plan was to recapture the dying Hubble with a Space Shuttle and house it in the Smithsonian as a national treasure. However, without the Shuttle program, there is no way to bring it safely back to Earth.

Hubble could remain in a decaying orbit until sometime between 2019 and 2032 but it weighs 24,500 pounds (as much as two full-grown elephants) and is as long as a large school bus. If it were to decay and then descend on its own, parts of the Hubble’s main mirror and support structure will most likely survive. Guess we can’t have that big mirror landing in downtown Chicago during rush hour. Carina Nebula

The last visit to the Hubble by mankind will be by a robotic spacecraft that will attach itself to the telescope and guide it safely back to Earth in a fiery reentry. Until then, let’s enjoy it while we can, and keep our fingers crossed that the Energizer Bunny keeps it going and going and going…