Last week NASA announced and got fairly wide coverage of news that it has vetoed a small, orbiting X-ray telescope that would have, after years of preparatory work and then launch on an Orbital Sciences Pegasus dropped from the belly of a Lockheed 1011, inferred magnetic fields and much more in the tumultuous environment that wraps and warps space around neutron stars, black holes, and other extremely dense objects.
Tomorrow, if things go well, it will launch a small, orbiting X-ray telescope that, after years of preparatory work and then launch on an Orbital Sciences Pegasus dropped from the belly of a Lockheed 1011, is to infer the tumultuous physics around neutron stars, black holes and other extremely dense objects.
Orbital Sciences not only was to launch them both, but it would have manufactured the canceled one and did make the one now ready to go.
There are differences.
The kaput one, called GEMS for Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer, was equipped to detect the polarization of the X-rays, an important measure of the geometry and intensity of magnetic and gravitational fields. It was running about 20 percent over its intended $119 million to build and operate it, not including launch cost. So NASA's bosses whacked it. Shock rippled through not only the NASA program office but the many university research groups gearing up for the mission.
The one to go off tomorrow, from an airstrip at Kwajelein Atoll in the Pacific, is NuSTAR for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array. It doesn't do polarimitry but is a talented device optimized for X-rays of higher energy than other space telescopes can easily handle. It is projected at $160 million lifetime costs and that seems to have been the general target all along (but it's not easy to figure that out. Here's the FY2011 budget request with run-out figures that implies its team has kept fiscal discipline). If it works joy and vigor will reverberate through the many research labs geared up for that event, perhaps with a lot of overlap with groups that were keying on the GEMS machine.
Still, even NuSTAR ran into budget problems, having been scratched six years ago just to save money but restarted a year later.
I'm backing into things but only to now explain why, as the search for advance coverage of tomorrow's launch proceeds, it may be interesting to see how many outlets pay attention to the remarkably similar nature of these two missions. They are in the news at about the same time, hence cross-referencing seems in order. One also is curious about the extent to which anybody tackles the strange optics of X-ray telescopes. They use an incident grazing-ray system - a bunch of ring like, nested mirrors shaped and canted sort of like a louvered Fresnel lens - to focus X-rays. Such high-energy photons go right through any standard lens without useful (or any) refraction. They also zip through or get absorbed in mirrors unless they hit at very shallow angles. So geometric wizardry must be employed to carom the rays as one wishes. Even then, the focusing is so gentle that the mirror-lens thingie must several yards from the detector. NuSTAR has a folding truss that is to extend once in orbit to hold the two parts at the right distance.
It's quite possible that some of these outlets, in previous coverage, have alluded to these missions' parallels. But just this set is under examination.
Here goes. STORIES this WEEK:
- Space.com - Clara Moskowitz : How NASA's New Telescope Will Illuminate Black Holes ; She does refer to the complex nature of the focusing elements - but also says they deflect light to the right place. Are X-rays light? Not in most people's inner lexicons. Both are electromagnetic radiation, but for most of us 'light' means the visible part of the spectrum unless explicitly qualified. "X-ray light" is fine, but by itself "light" implies eyeball-able. GEMS gets no mention, but other X-ray telescopes, Chandra and XMM-Newston, do.
- New Scientist - Lisa Grossman: Small, cheap black-hole hunter could be new NASA model ; The story notes that by NASA space telescope standards this one is very cheap. But it does not mention GEMS, nor that it got cancelled while, even with overruns, on course to cost about the same or less than NuSTAR.
- SF Chronicle - David Perlman: X-ray telescope promises insight into black holes ; Nice job, and Perlman's eye on distant pulsars and stuff fits the Chronicle staff's recent hyper-local handcuffs. He quotes a UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab man, in charge of the instrument, first. Then the Caltech woman who is chief scientist second. and without getting much bogged down, he alludes to the "wonder" that is the telescope's business end with 133 nested mirrors each no thicker than a fingernail. The moribund and presumed dead GEMs? Not here. It's history.
- InformationWeek - Patience Wait (wotta lovely quirky name!) : NASA Cancels GEMS, Readies NuSTAR Telescope; This tech writer does'em both. And she provides a figure that jumps out: That this Explorer class of probes is supposed to be for missions costing $120 million or less. But NuSTAR costs about $160 m. Maybe that includes launch. I dunno. But GEMs is in the round file for getting on track to the same rough cost as the celebrated NuSTAR. Were the latter still a few years from operation it might be in the same dustbin? One gets here a fair dwell on how techs at the Goddard Space Flight Center (interesting, not at a contractor?) made the nested mirrors.
Previous Stories (recent, but before GEMs cancellation):
- LA Times - Amina Khan: New NASA X-ray telescope to bring black holes into sharp focus ;
- Space News - Dan Leone: NASA NuSTAR X-ray Space Telescope Set for June 13 Launch ; (See yesterday post for more on SpaceNews.com coverage).
- Wash. Post - Brian Vastag: NASA mission to study black holes, supernovae and the sun is led by a woman ; Also tracked the Q&A, briefly, yesterday. Why a female at the top is treated as the lead news element in the hed, I dunno. Said that yesterday, too.
- RedOrbit: NuSTAR Strapped To Its Plane, En Route To Kwajalain Atoll For Launch ; This looks cobbled up from press release and website info, but points out what most accounts do not. The Pegasus rocket and its ex-airliner Lockheed "Stargazer" carrier craft fly together to the launch site only shortly before launch. However, one must further remark that the probe is not "perched atop" its booster. The package is near horizontal until it drops and rotates to climb away from its mothership.
FURTHER CONTEXT not in the news media:
- ArXiv - NHSM Team: The New Hard X-ray Mission: Just nosing around turned up this. The Italian Space Agency is studying its own X-ray Space Telescope called NHXM - sort of a combo GEMS and NuSTAR, polarimietry included, with four separate optical (meaning X-ray optics) trains, which this notional paper pencils in for 2016 launch but fat chance of that, one guesses. So - reporters wanting to plump up their coverage of NuSTAR's launch and operations might mention that if the US does not get this done maybe Europe will do it up even better. Schematically it looks a lot like NuSTAR (or, for that matter, like GEMS). One wonder if, in their heart of hearts, the Italians are sort of thinking hey! GEMS down, NuSTAR to go. If NASA doesn't get this second one up, that's surely a boost for NHXM's fortunes in similarly- strapped European space budget circles.
Grist for the Mill:
- Charlie Petit