In a first-of-its-kind arrangement, NASA has turned the control — and the funding — for one its scientific spacecraft over to a private institution.

A rite of passage for most every teenager is getting handed the keys to the family car. Now that same scenario is playing out in space, as NASA managers have turned over the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft to astronomers at Caltech.

GALEX spacecraft in orbit

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) launched successfuly aboard a Pegasus rocket on April 28, 2003.

Karl Forster / Caltech

According to an agreement signed last week, Caltech will take control not only of GALEX’s operation but also its funding. The transfer, a first for NASA, is permitted by the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act, which encourages federal agencies to transfer no-longer-needed resources to educational institutions and nonprofit organizations.

The space agency had zeroed out money for the project and placed the spacecraft in standby mode as of February 7th. Those moves came after a review panel had judged that the nine-year-old spacecraft had much lower scientific priority that other space-science missions looking to extend operations.

Although the spacecraft remains in hibernation for now, Caltech has begun ramping up for resuming its observations. “This mission was full of surprises,” comments principal investigator Chris Martin in a press release, “and now more surprises are sure to come.” Although one of the ultraviolet detector no longer works, the Caltech team estimates that the spacecraft's batteries and solar panels should provide power for at least 12 more years of operation.

Mira's 2° far-ultraviolet tail

The well-known variable star Mira creates a tail in the interstellar medium, extending 2° across the sky, that became evident only by stitching several GALEX mapping frames together.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / C. Martin / M. Seibert

Launched into space by a Pegasus XL rocket in April 2003, GALEX occupies a near-circular orbit about 435 miles (700 km) high. Since then its 20-inch (65-cm) telescope has surveyed more than 80% of the sky at ultraviolet wavelengths. Its main science goals are to learn how galaxies and stars formed and matured in the early universe. Recently its observations helped identify a black hole destroying a star.


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russ lucas

May 23, 2012 at 10:39 am

I wonder if the Hubble could be kept working in this same way......

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May 23, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Great question Russ. Imagine the good PR one of these start-up space companies would receive if they were able to save the world's favorite telescope now that the shuttle program is over.

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June 1, 2012 at 7:08 am

Hubble's gyros (or other components) will fail long before it ceases receiving funding from NASA and ESA...

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