Test Equipment, Shim Washers, And A 30 Year Old Space Telescope

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. When you see all the great pictures today, it is hard to remember that when it first launched, it was nearly a failure, taking fuzzy pictures. The story of how that problem was fixed while the telescope was whizzing through space is a good one. But there’s another story: how did a $1.5 billion satellite get launched with defective optics? After all, we know space hardware gets tested and retested and, typically, little expense is spared to make sure once a satellite is in orbit, it will work well for a long time.

The problem was with a mirror. You might think mirrors are pretty simple, but it turns out there’s a lot to know about mirrors. For astronomy, you need a first surface mirror which is different from your bathroom mirror which almost certainly reflects off the back of the glass. In addition, the mirrors need a very precise curve to focus light.

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The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

Today, after 16 years of exemplary service, NASA will officially deactivate the Spitzer Space Telescope. Operating for over a decade beyond its designed service lifetime, the infrared observatory worked in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal previously hidden details of known cosmic objects and helped expand our understanding of the universe. In later years, despite never being designed for the task, it became an invaluable tool in the study of planets outside our own solar system.

While there’s been no cataclysmic failure aboard the spacecraft, currently more than 260 million kilometers away from Earth, the years have certainly taken their toll on Spitzer. The craft’s various technical issues, combined with its ever-increasing distance, has made its continued operation cumbersome. Rather than running it to the point of outright failure, ground controllers have decided to quit while they still have the option to command the vehicle to go into hibernation mode. At its distance from the Earth there’s no danger of it becoming “space junk” in the traditional sense, but a rogue spacecraft transmitting randomly in deep space could become a nuisance for future observations.

From mapping weather patterns on a planet 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major to providing the first images of Saturn’s largest ring, it’s difficult to overstate the breadth of Spitzer’s discoveries. But these accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the mission’s storied history, from its tumultuous conception to the unique technical challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

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Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the recent release of a high-resolution satellite image showing the aftermath of Iran’s failed attempt to launch their Safir liquid fuel rocket. The geopolitical ramifications of Iran developing this type of ballistic missile technology is certainly a newsworthy story in its own right, but in this case, there’s been far more interest in how the picture was taken. Given known variables such as the time and date of the incident and the location of the launch pad, analysts have determined it was likely taken by a classified American KH-11 satellite.

The image is certainly striking, showing a level of detail that far exceeds what’s available through any of the space observation services we as civilians have access to. Estimated to have been taken from a distance of approximately 382 km, the image appears to have a resolution of at least ten centimeters per pixel. Given that the orbit of the satellite in question dips as low as 270 km on its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, it’s likely that the maximum resolution is even higher.

Of course, there are many aspects of the KH-11 satellites that remain highly classified, especially in regards to the latest hardware revisions. But their existence and general design has been common knowledge for decades. Images taken from earlier generation KH-11 satellites were leaked or otherwise released in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the Iranian image is certainly of a higher fidelity, this is not wholly surprising given the intervening decades.

What we know far less about are the orbital surveillance assets that supersede the KH-11. The satellite that took this image, known by its designation USA 224, has been in orbit since 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has launched a number of newer spacecraft since then, with several more slated to be lifted into orbit between now and 2021.

So let’s take a closer look at the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites, and compare that to what we can piece together about the next generation or orbital espionage technology that’s already circling overhead might be capable of.

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Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery

Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.

Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.

Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.

As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.

For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.

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