Flaws in NASA-provided detectors to delay European astronomy mission

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Updated Oct. 19 3:40 p.m. with additional NASA comment.

WASHINGTON — Problems with infrared detectors provided by NASA will delay the delivery of an instrument for a European Space Agency astronomy mission by a year or more, a NASA official said Oct. 18.

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said engineers found problems during recent testing of infrared detectors being provided by NASA for ESA’s Euclid space telescope, which had been planned for launch in 2020 on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.

“The detector systems that we had been developing for delivery for ESA has been failing in their characterization testing before delivery,” he said at a meeting of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee.

The problem, he said, is with an electronics package that malfunctions at the cold temperatures it will operate at on the mission. That problem did not appear in earlier qualification tests of the system.

“We are having to go back and redesign the electronics package,” followed by requalification of the unit, he said. Work on other elements of the instrument package are unaffected, he added, but overall integration will have to wait until the electronics are requalified.

That will delay the completion of the instrument. “This is going to cause a delay of at least 12 months, which will have impacts on the ESA mission,” he said. The instruments, he said, are on the critical path for the overall development of the spacecraft, although he did not indicate the length of the delay for Euclid itself.

NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said Oct. 19 that NASA is looking into two possible solutions to the technical issues found during testing, both which involve redesigns that may take 12 to 18 months. “NASA will convene a review of both options in December 2017 by an independent panel,” she said.

Euclid is a two-ton space telescope selected by ESA in 2011 as a medium-class mission in its Cosmic Vision program of space science missions. The spacecraft features a 1.2-meter telescope with visible and near-infrared instruments to study dark energy and dark matter, which combined account for about 95 percent of the universe. Euclid will operate at the Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, that is used by other infrared astronomy missions.

NASA agreed in 2013, as its contribution to Euclid, to provide components for the near-infrared instrument and establish a science center to support the mission. The agency spent $22.3 million on the mission in fiscal year 2016, the last year spending figures were available, and requested $6.9 million in 2018, stating that the decrease was linked to the completion of hardware.

ESA’s decision to involve NASA in the instrument, known as the Near-Infrared Spectrometer and Photometer (NISP), was based on the lack of similar detector technology in Europe. “The NISP detectors were procured in the USA because such advanced devices were not available in Europe at the time,” ESA noted in an April 2017 press release about the delivery of detectors for the instrument.