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Galaxy-hunting telescope to live on with private funding

Posted: May 16, 2012

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NASA has handed over an ultraviolet space telescope to the California Institute of Technology, officials announced Wednesday, allowing the observatory to continue surveying the cosmos for at least three years.

Artist's concept of the GALEX spacecraft in orbit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Galaxy Evolution Explorer, launched in 2003, was placed in standby mode Feb. 7 after surveying about 80 percent of the sky with its 19.7-inch telescope and ultraviolet sensor suite.

NASA ended its financial support for GALEX after a review of operating missions by senior astronomers ranked GALEX lower than other projects seeking a limited supply of funding.

NASA is lending the observatory to Caltech of Pasadena, Calif., which will fund the mission's operations through private funding. The Space Act Agreement making the transfer possible was signed May 14, NASA said in a press release.

The continued GALEX mission will allow the telescope to finish its survey of the entire sky, permitting astronomers to catalog more stars, galaxies, planets and other objects across the universe.

"This mission was full of surprises, and now more surprises are sure to come," said Chris Martin, who will remain the mission's principal investigator at Caltech. "It already has scanned a large fraction of the sky, improving our understanding of how galaxies grow and evolve. The astronomy community will continue those studies, in addition to spending more time on stars closer to home in our own galaxy."

The GALEX handover is a first-of-a-kind event for NASA.

"NASA sees this as an opportunity to allow the public to continue reaping the benefits from this space asset that NASA developed using federal funding," said Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics division director at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "This is an excellent example of a public/private partnership that will help further astronomy in the United States."

During its NASA mission, GALEX identified hundreds of millions of galaxies while peering 10 billion years back in time. GALEX also made discoveries on how spiral and elliptical galaxies transition from one type to another, according to NASA.

"We were able to trace the life of a galaxy," Martin said. "With the Galaxy Evolution Explorer's ultraviolet detectors, we were able to isolate the small amounts of star formation that are the signatures of galaxies undergoing an evolutionary change. We found that galaxies don't have a single personality, but may change types many times over their lifetime."

Before NASA suspended funding for 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 will itself hunt for alien planets around hot infant stars and detect ultraviolet flashes from exploding stars, or supernovae.

This new ultraviolet image from GALEX shows the Andromeda galaxy, or M31, the Milky Way's largest galactic neighbor 2.5 million light years away. The mosaic of Andromeda, which spans 260,000 light years across, was stitched together from 11 separate images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
GALEX never studied bright regions in the Milky Way galaxy before because of concerns ultraviolet emissions could damage the instrument's detectors. After relaxing those constraints recently, officials began expanding the areas of the sky available for surveys.

The new regions of the sky being studied by GALEX include the luminous plane of stars in the galactic plane, a band of light in the direction of the center of the Milky Way. Martin said GALEX will finish the all-sky survey with its new lease on life.

It costs about $100,000 per month to operate GALEX, according to Deborah Williams-Hedges, a Caltech spokesperson.

The total cost for NASA to build, launch and operate GALEX since 2003 was about $150 million, according to an agency spokesperson.

NASA will maintain ownership and liability for the GALEX satellite, and Orbital Sciences Corp., GALEX's prime contractor, will continue operating the satellite.

The space agency originally considered transferring ownership of GALEX to Caltech.

According to NASA, the GALEX spacecraft's batteries and solar panels should continue working for 12 more years.

No other ultraviolet space observatories like GALEX are under development.

"We're creating a legacy database for the next several decades," Martin said.

Officials said they have received funding from the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech, an Israeli research group, Cornell University, and the GAMA/Herschel-ATLAS/DINGO consortium, an international collaboration of 16 institutions.