Kudos to NASA and a consortium of educational institutions for coming up with a novel way to keep an aging astronomy satellite operating for at least another five months.
The 9-year-old Galaxy Evolution Explorer, or Galex, was designated for the orbital scrap heap early this year following NASA’s annual review of ongoing missions to determine which ones merit continued funding. Many if not most of NASA’s scientific spacecraft are able to gather useful scientific data long after their initial mission objectives have been achieved.
But mission extensions aren’t free — Galex costs more than $1 million a year to operate, for example. That might not seem like a lot of money, but with more and more science missions up for extension at a time of unprecedented pressure on NASA budgets — the agency is struggling to fund new probes to study other astronomical and planetary phenomena — it is inevitable that some worthy ones won’t make the cut.
The $150 million Galex satellite thus was taken out of action this year, but got a new lease on life thanks to a Space Act Agreement between NASA and an academic consortium led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The group includes Caltech’s own Keck Institute for Space Studies; an Israeli university consortium; Cornell University; and a large international consortium. Each has agreed to contribute funding that when combined will support another five months of spacecraft operations.
Although the arrangement was hailed as the first of its type, there is precedent: About a decade ago a university-led consortium added a couple of years to the life of NASA’s Advanced Communications Technology Satellite, which pioneered the use of Ka-band frequencies.
The Caltech-led consortium has outlined some objectives for the extended Galex mission, including completing a survey of the Milky Way galaxy, and is looking for other partners to climb aboard. This is a golden opportunity not only for other research institutions with money to spare and ideas on how to utilize Galex’s ultraviolet telescope but also perhaps for the space industry: What better way for NASA contractors to demonstrate their commitment to the agency and its science program than to pitch in a few dollars to help extend missions like Galex?
Externally funded extensions might not be feasible for NASA’s larger and more complex missions like the Hubble Space Telescope and Cassini Saturn orbiter, nor are they ideally suited to the trail-blazing science that drives the development of new NASA spacecraft. But NASA has plenty small and medium-sized spacecraft on orbit that either have completed their primary objectives or are close to doing so. Tight budgets are bound to bring more pressure on the agency in the coming years to retire these spacecraft — at some point the law of diminishing returns provides compelling reason to shut down spacecraft before their potential to carry out meaningful science has been exhausted.
Galex could serve as a model for other spacecraft reaching that crucial decision point. By providing regular opportunities for outside organizations to take the reins of spacecraft nearing budget-driven retirement, NASA will maximize the potential not only to keep the data flowing at little to no additional cost but also to find sensor applications and experiments that it hadn’t thought of before.