Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Personal Space Telescope

The beautiful images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope have probably done more to capture the public imagination than any other NASA project since the Apollo moon missions. As you might expect, not just anyone can use Hubble. The allocation of observing time is extremely competitive, and even most professional astronomers have never used it. Few people realize that Canada also has a space telescope -- and now, a team of Canadian astronomers wants to help any Canadian citizen use it for their own projects.

In June 2003, Canada launched its first space telescope called "MOST" for Microvariability & Oscillations of STars (or Microvariabilité & Oscillations STellaires for those in Quebec). It's quite a bit smaller than Hubble, roughly the size of a large suitcase, earning it the nickname "Humble Space Telescope". Because of its modest size, MOST was lifted into orbit on a decommissioned nuclear missile from Russia. Under an international peace treaty the missile was required to be destroyed anyway -- so they decided to use it for science! Inside MOST there is a 6-inch diameter reflecting telescope and a high quality digital camera. Scientists use the camera to take a series of images of pulsating stars, and record the amount of light emitted by the stars over time. They use this information to learn about the insides of the stars -- a cutting-edge technique known as asteroseismology.

After four years of very successful science operations, MOST had reached the end of its expected life, but it was still running. Rather than keeping the telescope for themselves, the MOST science team decided to do something unprecedented: they announced that any Canadian citizen could submit a proposal to use it. Young, old, scientist, amateur -- it didn't matter. The process was open to all. They called this new phase of the project "MOST: My Own Space Telescope". No word yet on whether any citizen projects have been selected, or announcements of their results. But the concept certainly reflects the best of the Canadian spirit.