NASA wants private company to take over Spitzer Space Telescope


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NASA has issued a request for proposals from private companies or organizations to take over the operation of the Spitzer Space Telescope after 2019.

NASA’s current plans call for operating Spitzer through March of 2019 to perform preparatory observations for the James Webb Space Telescope. That schedule was based on plans for a fall 2018 launch of JWST, which has since been delayed to the spring of 2019. Under that plan, NASA would close out the Spitzer mission by fiscal year 2020. That plan was intended to save NASA the cost of running Spitzer, which is currently $14 million a year. The spacecraft itself, though, remains in good condition and could operating well beyond NASA’s current plan.

“The observatory and the IRAC instrument are in excellent health. We don’t have really any issues with the hardware,” said Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, Spitzer project manager, in a presentation to the committee Oct. 18. IRAC is the Infrared Array Camera, an instrument that continues operations at its two shortest wavelengths long after the spacecraft exhausted the supply of liquid helium coolant.

The spacecraft’s only consumable is nitrogen gas used for the spacecraft’s thrusters, and Storrie-Lombardi said the spacecraft still had half its supply of nitrogen 14 years after launch.

The way a private organization could make money on this is to charge astronomers and research projects for observation time. This could work, since there is usually a greater demand for research time than available observatories.

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6 comments

  • D. Ray

    I’m curious why a university or group of universities don’t operate thus type of operation.

  • Edward

    The experience with Caltech and GALEX could help pave the way for non-government organizations to operate research satellites, probes, landers, and rovers to explore the solar system and the universe. If private organizations can successfully do this, then we would not be limited to the small budgets of governments but be only limited by the ability of those organizations to put explorers into space. Many such organizations would mean many explorers.

    Manned exploration may be able to fund itself in a similar way, and I expect that to happen naturally with the space habitats proposed by Bigelow, Ixion, and Axiom.

    D. Ray,
    Do you mean why they don’t already or why they don’t respond to the RFI?

    If you mean the former, it may be due to NASA being the competition, as is the reason for the long delay in commercial launch companies (Orbital Sciences started a small-launch rocket around 1990 because NASA didn’t have that market). It is hard to compete against the government, as VentureStar, Delta Clipper, Roton, and Kistler discovered.

    If you mean the latter, the experience with Caltech and GALEX may encourage one or more to do just that.

  • Jeff

    The model for space telescopes, such as Hubble, is that money comes with the awarding of time. The financial part of the award is to fund data analysis (to pay for computers, grad students, postdocs, and undergrads, and even the proposers themselves, plus ~60% university overhead costs). The average astronomer has no money to use to buy time. (Witness the Kickstarter so the KIC8462852 crew,the people studying the star with the unusual brightness dips that had all the ET megastructures talk, could buy time on telescopes to monitor the star every night.)

    About the only thing I could imagine is an organization with enough funding taking it over for their own purposes; for example, University X doing a _____ survey for its own people. But whether any institutions would have the money and will for that, I don’t know.

  • Dick Eagleson

    There are definitely organizations that have the requisite money. The W.M. Keck Foundation, for example, built the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes. $14 million per year is well within Keck’s wheelhouse. Researchers might be even more attracted to the prospect of coordinated viewing time on the terrestrial Keck twins and the space-based Spitzer than in either considered separately. Nor is Keck the only well-heeled foundation out there with a demonstrated track record in astronomical projects.

    I think NASA will find takers for Spitzer. The Spitzer model might also allow NASA to “deaccession” some of its other current probes in similar fashion. NASA might also be open to some form of private consortium building out new DSN capacity NASA cannot currently afford in order to provide the telemetry bandwidth needed to completely take charge of legacy missions.

  • Edward

    Dick Eagleson wrote: “NASA might also be open to some form of private consortium building out new DSN capacity NASA cannot currently afford in order to provide the telemetry bandwidth needed to completely take charge of legacy missions.

    I suspect that as private space begins its own explorations of the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other destinations, a private Deep Space Network (DSN) will rapidly become necessary.

    It is hard to say whether SpaceX will add more antennas at Boca Chica as one node of their own DSN for their manned Mars missions.
    http://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/spacex-completes-installation-of-two-antenna-dishes-in-boca-chica-spaceport/

    Manned deep space missions will likely demand more dish time than is available on the current DSN systems.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Edward,

    Yes, I very much agree with everything you wrote. Long-term, deep space communications infrastructure will be privately provided just as is today’s Internet. We may well see some significant early moves in that direction within even the next five years.

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