Spitzer Space Telescope Launched

The space history series is not dead yet! Here’s an item I missed the first go-round.

Ten years ago today — August 25, 2003 — a Delta 2 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the fourth of NASA’s “Great Observatories.”


(Artist’s conception of the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Earth’s orbital track. NASA image.)

Originally called the Space InfraRed Telescope Facility (SIRTF), it was renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope after astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr. (1914-1997), who “was the first person to propose the idea of placing a large telescope in space and was the driving force behind the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The Spitzer orbiting observatory was the largest space-based infrared telescope yet launched. It trails behind the Earth in a heliocentric orbit.

More about the Spitzer mission is on this site.

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Exploring the Evolution of Galaxies

Ten years ago today — April 28, 2003 — a Pegasus XL rocket carried a small spacecraft to probe the origin of stars and galaxies.


(A 2012 GALEX composite image of the Andromeda galaxy. NASA/JPL-Caltech image.)

Called GALEX, for GALaxy Evolution eXplorer, the spacecraft’s primary instrument was a telescope tuned to the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. With its mission now extended beyond the original 29-month timeline, GALEX is conducting “an all-sky imaging survey, a deep imaging survey, and a survey of 200 galaxies nearest to the Milky Way” in order to explore the origins of heavy elements, stars, and galaxies. You can find more information about the mission, including many stunning images, on this page

For more down-to-earth mapping purposes, on this date 5 years ago India launched CartoSat 2A, a remote-sensing satellite, along with 9 smaller spacecraft, from the Sriharikota launch center on a PSLV 9 rocket. Urban and rural planners use CartoSat’s data.

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P.S. The full resolution JPEG (19.3 MB) of the Andromeda image above is here.

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Japanese X-Ray Telescope, and a Satellite’s Destruction

Twenty years ago today — February 20, 1993 — Japan launched the Asuka x-ray observatory from Uchinoura Space Center atop an M-3SII rocket.


(Representation of Asuka satellite. JAXA image.)

Asuka, also known as ASTRO-D before launch and ASCA afterward, was a joint mission in which NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both provided spacecraft components in exchange for observation time with the orbiting telescope. The spacecraft operated normally for over seven years; however,

A solar flare on 14 July 2000 caused heating and expansion of the upper atmosphere, which increased the drag and external torque on ASCA. The attitude was perturbed, so the solar panels lost lock on the Sun, resulting in discharge of the batteries. ASCA reentered the atmosphere on March 2, 2001.

This date in space history is also marked by another satellite’s destruction, but this time it was deliberate: 5 years ago today, the guided-missile-cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a missile to intercept a disabled reconnaissance satellite. You can read contemporary news reports at Spy Satellite’s Downing Shows a New U.S. Weapon Capability and Navy says missile smashed wayward satellite.

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Second Hubble Servicing Mission

Fifteen years ago today — February 11, 1997 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center on a mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope.


(Astronauts Steven Smith and Mark Lee ride the Shuttle’s remote manipulator arm while effecting repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA image.)

Mission STS-82 astronauts Kenneth D. Bowersox, Scott J. Horowitz, Mark C. Lee, Steven A. Hawley, Gregory J. Harbaugh, Steven L. Smith, and Joseph R. Tanner completed five spacewalks during the mission and placed the telescope in a higher orbit.

The astronauts

  • Replaced the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph
  • Replaced the Faint Object Spectrograph with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer
  • Replaced a degraded Fine Guidance Sensor and a failed Engineering and Science Tape Recorder
  • Installed the Optical Control Electronics Enhancement Kit to increase the capability of the Fine Guidance Sensor
  • Replaced a Data Interface Unit and an old reel-to-reel Engineering and Science Tape Recorder with a new digital Solid State Recorder
  • Changed out one of four Reaction Wheel Assemblies
  • Replaced a Solar Array Drive Electronics package

During the second EVA crewmembers “noted cracking and wear on thermal insulation on side of telescope facing the sun and in the direction of travel.” Mission controllers added a fifth spacewalk to the schedule so the astronauts could install insulating blankets — some of which were put together on Discovery‘s middeck during the mission — over key component areas.

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Space History: First Orbiting Astronomical Observatory

Forty-five years ago today — April 8, 1966 — an Atlas Agena rocket launched from Cape Canaveral and placed the OAO-1 space telescope in a “nearly perfect circular orbit.”


(Artist’s conception of OAO-1. NASA image.)

The first of the orbiting observatories that would be precursors to the Hubble Space Telescope, OAO-1 did not live up to expectations. Only 7 minutes after separation, the power system failed due to high voltage arcing in the star trackers and resultant battery depletion. Ground controllers ended the mission after 20 orbits, and the first of the OAO series made no celestial observations.

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Gamma Rays and UFOs

With the Space Shuttle Discovery now being torn apart, and the two remaining shuttles facing only a single, final flight each, these shuttle-related space history items are becoming quite bittersweet. Even so …

Twenty years ago today — April 5, 1991 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center with a new observatory to place in orbit.


(The Gamma Ray Observatory, held by the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System. NASA image.)

The STS-37 crew — Steven R. Nagel. Kenneth D. Cameron, Linda M. Godwin, Jerry L. Ross, and Jerome “Jay” Apt — launched the Gamma Ray Observatory on the third day of their mission. The launch was not picture perfect, however: the “high-gain antenna failed to deploy on command; it was finally freed and manually deployed by Ross and Apt during an unscheduled contingency spacewalk.”

Astronauts fixing things … sounds like a reason to continue with a human spaceflight program ….

The new space telescope was later renamed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory in honor of Nobel laureate Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, a pioneer in high-energy physics. The observatory remained in orbit until June 2000.

As for UFOs: like many shuttle missions, the camera on STS-37 picked up an image of an object that appears to be in the vicinity of the shuttle. You can watch the 27-second video here and draw your own conclusion.

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How Big is the Universe?

Over at the redesigned Baen Books* web site, they’re running features by Baen authors — a short story one time, a short article the next — and the recent article “The Size of It All” by Les Johnson is fantastic. Here’s the opening (with emphasis added):

For ten days in 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope pointed its mirror to a small patch of seemingly empty sky near the Big Dipper and started collecting light. (“Seemingly empty” means that no stars or galaxies were at that time known to be in that particular piece of the sky.) The part of the sky being imaged was no larger than the apparent size of a tennis ball viewed from across a football field. It was a very small portion of the sky. What they found was awe-inspiring. Within that small patch of nothingness was far more than nothing. The image revealed about three thousand previously unseen galaxies, creating one of the most famous of Hubble’s images and my personal favorite. The sky is not only full of stars but also of galaxies and they are very, very far away.

Here’s the mosaic image the telescope produced:


(Hubble Deep Field. NASA image.)

Since that image was taken, the Hubble Space Telescope has produced the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which revealed ten thousand previously unseen galaxies, even farther away and further back in time, in another “seemingly empty” part of the sky.

It’s apparent that we are nearly insignificant specks in the grand scheme of the universe, and if you read “The Size of It All” you’ll get an idea of just how small our world — indeed, our entire little part of the celestial sphere — is. The question of how big the universe really is always puts me in mind of one of my favorite Chris Rice songs, “Big Enough”**:

When I imagine the size of the universe
And I wonder what’s out past the edges
And I discover inside me a space as big
And believe that I’m meant to be filled up with more than just questions …

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by it all. It’s on those days that I rely most on faith to keep me going.

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* FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m affiliated with Baen as their “Slushmaster General.”
** Copyright Clumsy Fly Music. Used without permission, but in good faith so hopefully they won’t send their lawyers after me.

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Two Observatories on 12/02

Twenty years ago today — December 2, 1990 — the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center carrying seven astronauts and a space observatory.

STS-35 astronauts Vance D. Brand, Guy S. Gardner, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, John M. “Mike” Lounge, Robert A. R. Parker, Samuel T. Durrance and Ronald A. Parise surveyed the sky in the ultraviolet and x-ray frequencies using the ASTRO-1 observatory.

ASTRO-1 combined the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photo-Polarimeter Experiment, Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope, and Broad Band X-Ray Telescope into a single observatory. Between problems with the data display units used to point and operate the instruments, and bad weather at the primary landing site that cut the mission short, only about 70% of the planned observations took place.

And then 5 years later, on this date in 1995, another observatory was launched: the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) flew from Cape Canaveral Air Station atop an Atlas-IIAS launch vehicle. SOHO consisted of twelve different instruments — three from the U.S. and nine from Europe — that have produced stunning images of the Sun and the solar corona, like the one below, over the last 15 years.


(SOHO close-up image of a large solar prominence, taken with the 304A filter on 07/01/02, with Earth superimposed for scale. NASA image.)

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An Astronomer's Astronomer, and a New Space Telescope

One hundred twenty years ago today in space history — November 20, 1889 — astronomer Edwin P. Hubble was born in Marshfield, Missouri.


(Edwin Hubble, next to the Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory. NASA image.)

Hubble earned his B.S. in mathematics and astronomy at the University of Chicago in 1910, and studied law at Oxford University as one of the first Rhodes Scholars. He served briefly in World War I, and returned to earn his doctorate at the University of Chicago. He spent his entire professional career at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles. Among his discoveries, Hubble:

  • Found that Andromeda is a separate galaxy from our Milky Way
  • Went on to discover dozens of new galaxies outside our own
  • Classified galaxy types, as shown here
  • Calculated the rate of expansion of the universe

NASA, of course, honored Hubble by naming their most famous space telescope after him.


(Hubble Space Telescope. NASA image.)

And speaking of space telescopes, 5 years ago today, in 2004, NASA launched the Swift Telescope — also known as the Gamma Ray Burst Explorer, or Explorer-84 — on a Delta-II rocket from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft, named after the bird, carried three instruments to detect and locate gamma ray bursts.

(Swift mission patch. Click to enlarge. NASA image.)

I think Edwin Hubble would be thrilled to see the new discoveries that have been made, by the telescope that bears his name as well as other, specialized instruments.

And I wonder what’s next….

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NASA Announcement: First Extrasolar Planet Imaged by Hubble

Let me start by saying: It was really cool to be allowed to call in to the NASA press conference to hear the announcement live. I am space today.*

So here’s what NASA had to say:

The Hubble Space Telescope collected the first visible light images of a planet circling another star. The star, Fomalhaut, is one of the twenty brightest stars in the sky; even though it’s about 27 light years away, it’s visible with the naked eye if you know where to look (an image of the constellation is on the page linked below).

The planet, known as Fomalhaut-B, was observed in 2004 and 2006, but not “discovered” until scientists reanalyzed their data this past Memorial Day weekend. The NASA team concluded that the object was a planet based on three factors: first, its relatively low mass of around three Jupiters; second, the presence of a perturbed dust ring in the Fomalhaut equivalent of our Kuiper Belt; and third, comparative images from 2004 and 2006 that show the planet’s motion in its orbit. The team expressed high confidence that Fomalhaut-B was a planet rather than a brown dwarf star because the object did not show up at infrared wavelengths as a brown dwarf should, but was only detected using visible wavelengths.

After the next Hubble servicing mission, the team hopes to make further observations of the Fomalhaut system. With a third observation of the planet in its orbit, they can make more accurate calculations of its orbital elements.

See this page for the story and this page for the briefing materials.

As a space geek and would-be “steely-eyed missile man,” this was pretty awesome for me. 😀

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*To add to all the other days when I was space, which seem oh so long ago now. I miss my space days.

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