Numerous scientific fingers are being anxiously crossed and recrossed as astronomers from Toronto to Plesetsk, Russia, await news of the launch today of Canada's small and "humble" space telescope.
The Humble, so nicknamed as to contrast it to NASA's complicated and expensive Hubble Space Telescope, is more formally known as the Microvariabilty and Oscillation of Stars telescope, or MOST. Not much bigger than the proverbial breadbox, the MOST has been built on the extreme cheap -- at least in relationship to the oft-astronomical costs connected to space-based science.
For less than $10-million, the Canadian Space Agency commissioned the telescope that will use light readings to: date nearby stars, measure the sizes and atmospheres of giant planets circling some of those stars and potentially figure out why planet-building material escaped from stars in the first place.
The MOST is a tenth the price of what previously was considered a cheap space telescope and a fraction of a fraction of Hubble's $3-billion value. Technologically, this parsimony is possible because instead of developing a host of "one-off" technologies, its creators were able to piggy-back the MOST on top of off-the-shelf machinery.
"The whole thing is sort of like a desktop computer with a cellphone attached, hooked up to a 15-centimetre telescope. There are lots of amateur astronomers in Toronto who have telescopes in their back yards that are bigger than that," said Kieran Carroll, who designed the MOST for Dynacon Enterprizes Ltd.
To further cut costs, astronomers arranged for their humble telescope to be launched from a once top-secret site in Russia, on top of a cut-down version of an intercontinental missile.
"Almost every day here at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome there's an 'oh wow' moment," said Jayme Matthews, a University of British Columbia astronomer and lead scientist for the MOST. "After all, we're living and working at what was once one of the USSR's top military secrets. They didn't even admit to the existence of Plesetsk until persistent local UFO sightings forced the government to acknowledge that rockets were being launched from this site."
He added with more than a droplet of awe: "We have been allowed to stand in the gantry above a missile that was once a weapon of mass destruction."
While excited about the future of a teeny, tiny space telescope with a year-long lifetime, all those involved understand that getting it up is more than a little risky. The usual industry estimate is that one out of three micro-satellites blow up on launch, fail to deploy, go into the wrong orbit or simply do not turn on.
While builders of more expensive space-based instruments have tried to deal with some of these problems by incorporating multiple backup systems into their designs, the MOST builders opted for the cheap and easily available. According to the telescope's developers, doing this provides a financial hedge against a potential catastrophic failure not available for even relatively cheap $100-million spacecraft.
"In a sense we have been deliberately taking more risks, and the end result is a much, much less expensive satellite. But if something goes wrong, it still means you would have 90 per cent of your money left over to spend on a second satellite you almost certainly will get right," Mr. Carroll said.