‘Pay-Per-View’ Mode Keeps Canadian Space Telescope Flying After 13 Years

MOST is 13 years old today.

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Jun 30 2016, 12:00pm

The MOST space telescope was designed to measure variations in intensity in the brightness of stars. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Here's a pay-per-view option with more stars than you'd ever find on TV. Canada's first space telescope has solved a government funding riddle by asking customers to pay to look through its viewfinder. And the results are really beginning to pay off, its principal investigator told me, as MOST marks its 13th birthday in space.

Canada's Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) telescope launched June 30, 2003 on what was supposed to be a one-year mission to study star vibrations, but the machine was still going strong in 2014 when the Canadian Space Agency yanked its funding, saying the mission had achieved its objectives and it was time to retire.

After considering crowdfunding to keep it going, the University of British Columbia's Jaymie Matthews found a buyer: Microsat Systems Canada Inc., which creates stabilization devices for spacecraft. MSCI, which now operates MOST, makes time available to any astronomer's group that wants to use the telescope, as long as MOST can safely do it and the buyer can use it for a minimum of a week. Booking the telescope for that length of time costs $6,000 US (nearly $7,700 Canadian), which sounds like a deal.

Jaymie Matthews in a clean room with MOST. Image: Canadian Space Agency

"I would still hope eventually we would be able to find a funder or a donor. I've been kicking around the idea of a Kickstarter campaign where we would put together the elevator pitch and a one-year [science] program," said Matthews. He added that he is grateful for the MSCI funding, and that MOST is being made available practically at cost, but he misses the days of judging submissions against each other by scientific merit.

MOST was originally designed to look at star variability, but even before its design phase was over, astronomers realized it could also examine exoplanets (planets beyond the solar system). MOST has also looked at objects in the solar system, such as the icy small worlds in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

This makes MOST a versatile telescope for all sorts of astronomy investigations. Matthews said he is proud of the two published articles from its new pay-per-view mission so far.

One, published in The Astronomical Journal, looked at a bizarre exoplanet called HD 20782. The planet has such an eccentric, cigar-shaped orbit that it is close to flying away from its parent star and into space. The planet swings through extreme cold when it is far away from the star, and extreme heat when it is close by.

Even more strangely, MOST detected a reflection of the planet's light on its star. With more observations, this could provide information on how the planet's atmosphere behaves as the planet ricochets between hot and cold.

"We are studying the planet in this kind of weird way you could have never imagined," Matthews said. "It's the stuff that science fiction writers would have dismissed as being too outlandish."

A birthday cake celebrating the 10th birthday of MOST. Image: Jaymie Matthews

Another published work involved refining measurements of stellar variability using the example of Epsilon Eridani. MOST is also involved in planet-hunting; a paper about a search around one star will be submitted for publication soon.

To Matthews' knowledge, MOST is the only space telescope that charges for access. Typically, telescopes are open to all astronomers who must compete for telescope time based on their expected scientific return from the investigation.

There is at least one example on Earth, however, of a sky-gazing telescope that charges for access. The Keck telescopes, Matthew said, are free for astronomers in the University of California system. Those outside of teams with U of C astronomers pay per use. The calculated observing cost per night is $53,700 US (nearly $68,900 Canadian).