Can NASA give away a working satellite?

What can NASA do with a space telescope that’s in good working order but whose funding has run out? Instead of letting it become just another piece of space junk, the space agency wants to give it away.

In an unprecedented move for an operational spacecraft, NASA is negotiating to turn operation of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer over to the California Institute of Technology, Spaceflight Now reports.

The satellite, known as GALEX, has been providing data on the ultraviolet properties of nearby galaxies since 2003 and, among other discoveries, helped confirm the existence of dark energy, according to Popular Science.

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It already has lasted far longer than its expected, 29-month lifecycle, and except for one detector that shorted out in 2009, it’s working fine. But NASA’s Senior Review Panel, which in 2006 had voted to continue the mission, in 2010 decided that other operations had higher priorities. GALEX was put into standby mode Feb. 7, though data archiving and analysis will continue into the summer of 2012, Spaceflight Now reported.

NASA is hoping to reach a deal by March 31 with CalTech, which has led GALEX’ research.

The transfer of operational control would be made under the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act, which allows for government agencies to donate computer and research equipment to educational and nonprofit institutions. A lot of PCs have been given to schools under the act’s provisions, but never anything floating in space.

The question is whether CalTech wants to assume control of GALEX. Although it wouldn’t have to pay for the satellite — Stevenson-Wydler prohibits agencies from accepting money for equipment — manpower and money are involved in maintaining its operation.

GALEX, which has a 19.7-inch telescope and to date has been managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, most recently has been surveying magellanic clouds, the galactic plane and the stars also being studied by NASA’s Kepler space telescope for signs of plants, according to Spaceflight Now.

During its nine years in space, GALEX has produced an unprecedented archive of information on how the basic structures of the universe evolve, according to CalTech. Its data has been used to catalog millions of galaxies spanning 10 billion years.

Among its other mission highlights, GALEX has explored “teenage galaxies,” discovered a gigantic comet-like tail behind a speeding star, found rings of new stars around old galaxies and witnessed a black hole devouring a star, Universe Today reports.

CalTech officials are expected to give NASA an answer by March 31. If they choose not to continue the mission, GALEX will join other spent satellites and spacecraft in the great junkyard in the sky.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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