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World’s smallest space telescope to launch on Monday

February 22, 2013

Canada helps push the boundaries of astronomy with the next wave of smaller satellites

TORONTO, ON — The small­est astro­nom­i­cal satel­lite ever built will launch short­ly after 07:20 a.m. EST on Mon­day, 25 Feb­ru­ary 2013 as part of a mis­sion to prove that even a very small tele­scope can push the bound­aries of astron­o­my.

The satel­lite was designed and assem­bled at the Space Flight Lab­o­ra­to­ry (SFL) of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies (UTIAS). It will be launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Cen­tre in Sri­hariko­ta, India, along with its twin, also designed in Cana­da, but assem­bled in Aus­tria.

Each nano-satel­lite in the BRIght Tar­get Explor­er (BRITE) mis­sion is a cube 20 cen­time­tres per side, and weigh­ing less than 7 kilo­grams. The BRITE satel­lites are part of the new wave of nano-satel­lites that can be designed, assem­bled and deployed fast and rel­a­tive­ly cheap­ly.

“SFL has demon­strat­ed that nano-satel­lites can be devel­oped quick­ly, by a small team and at a cost that is with­in reach of many uni­ver­si­ties, small com­pa­nies and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions,” says Cordell Grant, Man­ag­er of Satel­lite Sys­tems for the Space Flight Lab­o­ra­to­ry at UTIAS. “A nano-satel­lite can take any­where from six months to a few years to devel­op and test, but we typ­i­cal­ly aim for two years or less.”

Up to now, such nano-satel­lites had been used only to mon­i­tor the earth and exper­i­ment with new tech­nolo­gies. “Researchers, sci­en­tists and com­pa­nies world­wide, who have great ideas for space-borne exper­i­ments, but do not have the means to fund a large space­craft, can now see their ideas real­ized,” said Grant. “BRITE has the poten­tial to open an entire­ly new mar­ket for low-cost high-per­for­mance satel­lites.”

BRITE is the first nano-satel­lite mis­sion intend­ed for astron­o­my, and the first-ever astron­o­my con­stel­la­tion —more than one satel­lite work­ing toward a com­mon objec­tive— of any size. The pre­vi­ous world-record hold­er for small astron­o­my satel­lites was the MOST satel­lite, designed and assem­bled in part by SFL at UTIAS. Launched in 2003 and still oper­at­ing, MOST was the first entire­ly Cana­di­an satel­lite for astron­o­my, weigh­ing in at 53 kilo­grams. Com­pared to the 11 met­ric tons of the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope, MOST was apt­ly called a micro-satel­lite.

“BRITE is expect­ed to demon­strate that nano-satel­lites are now capa­ble of per­for­mance that was once thought impos­si­ble for such small space­craft,” says Grant. But only small tele­scopes can fit with­in a 20 cen­time­tre cube. There­fore, BRITE is not intend­ed to take pret­ty pic­tures, but will sim­ply observe stars and record changes in their bright­ness over time. Such changes could be caused by spots on the star, a plan­et or oth­er star orbit­ing the star, or by oscil­la­tions and rever­ber­a­tions with­in the star itself —the ana­logue of earth­quakes on stars. The study of these so-called “star­quakes” is called aster­o­seis­mol­o­gy.

To per­form pre­cise mea­sure­ments of the bright­ness of stars, the tele­scopes need to be above the atmos­phere. Oth­er­wise, scin­til­la­tion —the atmos­pher­ic effect that caus­es stars to twin­kle— over­whelms the rel­a­tive­ly small bright­ness vari­a­tions of the stars them­selves. By avoid­ing this, a very small tele­scope in space can pro­duce more accu­rate data than a much larg­er tele­scope on the ground. Also, unlike tele­scopes on Earth which are use­less dur­ing the day, in bad weath­er or when the stars set below the hori­zon, tele­scopes in space can poten­tial­ly observe stars all the time.

As their name sug­gests, the BRITE satel­lites will focus on the bright­est stars in the sky includ­ing those that make up promi­nent con­stel­la­tions like Ori­on the Hunter. These stars are the same ones vis­i­ble to the naked eye, even from city cen­tres. Because very large tele­scopes most­ly observe very faint objects, the bright­est stars are also some of the most poor­ly stud­ied stars.

It turns out that the bright­est stars are also the largest. Big bright stars lead short and vio­lent lives and deaths (super­novas) and in the process seed the uni­verse with heavy ele­ments with­out which life on Earth would be impos­si­ble. To bet­ter under­stand these stars is to bet­ter under­stand how life arose on our plan­et.

Because big objects oscil­late and quake slow­er than small­er ones, the BRITE satel­lites do not have to keep their eyes con­stant­ly on any giv­en star, but can observe from time to time to see if any­thing has changed —as chil­dren do in the game Mr. Wolf, where they only take a peek at their play­mates once in a while, but are still able to tell if any of them has changed posi­tion.

Hence, the BRITE satel­lites can mon­i­tor their tar­get stars what­ev­er orbit they are placed on, and do not require a ded­i­cat­ed rock­et to place them in a spe­cif­ic orbit. By pig­gy-back­ing on any avail­able rock­et, the BRITE satel­lites can thus be launched for rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle mon­ey: the first two BRITE satel­lites will be sent to space on the Polar Satel­lite Launch Vehi­cle (PSLV) C20.

To gath­er more obser­va­tions and to increase the life­time of the mis­sion, sci­en­tists will be launch­ing three such pairs of satel­lites —one Aus­tri­an pair, one Pol­ish pair and one Cana­di­an pair sup­port­ed by the Cana­di­an Space Agency— so that with­in a few years BRITE will become a con­stel­la­tion of six satel­lites. Each twin in a pair watch­es the sky in a dif­fer­ent colour (red or blue), pro­vid­ing anoth­er excit­ing lay­er of data to the sci­en­tists.


BACKGROUND VIDEO: (5 min.) (5 min.)


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:  

Cordell Grant
Man­ag­er, Satel­lite Sys­tems
Space Flight Lab­o­ra­to­ry
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies
4925 Duf­ferin Street
Toron­to, Ontario, Cana­da, M3H 5T6
Dur­ing busi­ness hours (EST): (+1) 416–667-7916
Out­side busi­ness hours: (+1) 647–267-4925

Johannes Hirn
Out­reach & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
Dun­lap Insti­tute for Astron­o­my & Astro­physics
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
50 St. George Street
Toron­to, Ontario, Cana­da M5S 3H4
Tel: (+1) 647–740-6819