Space

July 2, 2013

NASA decommissions its Galaxy Hunter spacecraft

This image from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) shows Messier 94, also known as NGC 4736, in ultraviolet light. It is located 17 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici. The spiral galaxy is punctuated by a distinct ring of stars at its center. The young stars glow with ultraviolet light and thus appear bright to the detectors of GALEX. Astronomers think the galaxy’s oval shape may be the reason for this sharp ring of star formation. The ultraviolet light at the very center of the galaxy, within the ring, is likely produced by a combination of extremely old stars, about 10 billion years old. GALEX highlights the complex star formation history in the outer arms as well. There, the blue-white regions highlight areas of current star formation, and the diffuse faint red light is from regions where star formation ceased more than 100 million years ago.

NASA has turned off its Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) after a decade of operations in which the venerable space telescope used its ultraviolet vision to study hundreds of millions of galaxies across 10 billion years of cosmic time.

“GALEX is a remarkable accomplishment,” said Jeff Hayes, NASA’s GALEX program executive in Washington. “This small Explorer mission has mapped and studied galaxies in the ultraviolet, light we cannot see with our own eyes, across most of the sky.”

Operators at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Va., sent the signal to decommission GALEX at 3:09 p.m., EDT, June 28. The spacecraft will remain in orbit for at least 65 years, then fall to Earth and burn up re-entering the atmosphere. GALEX met its prime objectives and its mission was extended three times before NASA decided to end it.

Highlights from the mission’s decade of sky scans include:

  •  The discovery of a gargantuan comet-like tail behind a speeding star called Mira.
  • Catching a black hole “red-handed” as it munched on a star.
  • Finding giant rings of new stars around old, dead galaxies.
  • Independently confirming the nature of dark energy.
  • The discovery of a missing link in galaxy evolution – the teenage galaxies transitioning from young to old.

 

The mission also captured a dazzling collection of snapshots, showing everything from ghostly nebulas to a spiral galaxy with huge, spidery arms.

In a first-of-a-kind move for NASA, the agency in May 2012 loaned GALEX to Caltech, which used private funds to continue operating the satellite while NASA retained ownership. Since then, investigators from around the world have used GALEX to study everything from stars in our own Milky Way galaxy to hundreds of thousands of galaxies 5 billion light-years away.

In the space telescope’s last year, it scanned across large patches of sky, including the bustling, bright center of our Milky Way. The telescope spent time staring at some areas of the sky exploded stars, called supernovae, and monitoring how objects, such as the centers of active galaxies, change over time. GALEX also scanned the sky for massive, feeding black holes and shock waves from early supernova explosions.

Data from the last year of the mission will be made public in the coming year.

“GALEX, the mission, may be over, but its science discoveries will keep on going,” said Kerry Erickson, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

A slideshow showing some of the popular GALEX images can be seen here: http://go.nasa.gov/17xAVDd.

JPL managed the GALEX mission and built the science instrument. The mission’s principal investigator, Chris Martin, is at Caltech. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., developed the mission under the Explorers Program it manages. Researchers sponsored by Yonsei University in South Korea and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France collaborated on the mission.

 




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