In a day of mixed fortunes for Canadian space science, researchers behind one mission announced the probable loss of a million-dollar nanosatellite, while a different spacecraft that is slated for cancellation as a cost-saving measure has just produced one of its most important scientific results to date.
The lost spacecraft, known as BRITE-Montreal, was built at the University of Toronto's Space Flight Laboratory. It was one of 33 satellites launched on June 19 from Yasny, Russia, aboard a repurposed Soviet-style missile. In a statement, the laboratory said that while the rocket's maker, Yuzhnoye, initially declared that all satellites successfully achieved orbit, it has since backtracked and cannot confirm that BRITE-Montreal separated from its launcher.
NORAD, which tracks all satellites in Earth's orbit, has found no object in the expected BRITE-Montreal orbit.
A twin satellite, BRITE-Toronto, was launched on the same rocket and appears to be working well. The two satellites were meant to be the fourth and fifth members of a six-satellite constellation operated jointly by Canada, Austria and Poland. The goal of the project is to study the brightest stars in the night sky.
The loss comes as another Canadian satellite, known as MOST, steps into the limelight for its part in helping astronomers devise a powerful way to observe stars while they are still at an embryonic stage – the celestial equivalent of an ultrasound.
But the advance, which promises to clarify how stars like our sun form, is bittersweet, team members say. MOST, which is a predecessor to the BRITE satellites, is currently on the federal government's chopping block and will be switched off unless an outside benefactor steps forward to underwrite its operating costs.
"The Canadian Space Agency has made it clear that they would love us to be able to find other funding sources to continue," said Jaymie Matthews, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia and principle investigator for MOST. "We have a capability that no one else in the world has."
Fondly nicknamed the "humble space telescope," MOST is a suitcase-sized satellite launched in 2003 that specializes in staring at individual stars for weeks on end. While such a task is deemed too time-consuming for larger space telescopes like the Hubble, it can reveal the tiny but periodic changes in brightness that are due to sound waves echoing back and forth inside a star. The characteristics of these waves can then be used to infer details about what's happening within the star's hidden interior.
In the latest study, published online Thursday by the journal Science, data from MOST and a now-defunct French satellite named CoRoT were used to probe developing stars in which the nuclear reactions that will allow them to shine for billions of years have not yet switched on. The new results show a clear progression that links the pulsations of these stars to their ages.
"Nobody expected to see such a clear dependency," said Konstanze Zwintz, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium and lead author of the study.
Dr. Zwintz said that the pulsations offer a diagnostic tool that can reveal where in the gestation process a particular stellar embryo is and can be used more broadly to test theories of star formation, particularly across entire populations of stars that are forming together.
Thanks to the measurements from of a handful of satellites, including MOST, "the last five years have seen a revolution in understanding stars," said Ron Gilliland, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the study.
The decision to pull the plug on MOST, a $10-million asset that was built to last a year but is technically capable of running until 2020 or beyond, has met with mixed reviews within the Canadian space science community. While its $300,000 annual budget is relatively small for a space mission, the savings could allow the cash-strapped Canadian Space Agency to develop other projects.
Dr. Matthews said he is making pitches to corporate sponsors to try to keep MOST going so that he can extend its measurements to look at additional groups of young stars. Dr. Zwintz has also applied for a grant through the European Union, though she adds that the process is a highly competitive one. In April, the space agency said it will switch off MOST on Sept. 9.