Jaymie Matthews owns a Transformer. It’s the size of a suitcase and only weighs 50 kilos, but pound for pound it can give Optimus Prime a run for its money. Its name is MOST, which stands for Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) telescope.
Matthews, the UBC astronomer who leads the MOST mission, says the telescope may look like a cube with legs but he likes to think of it as a Transformer because of the way the satellite’s capabilities and scope have transformed in the years since it was launched.
“It is doing science none of us thought was possible,” Matthews says.
MOST opened an exciting new frontier for Matthews and his colleagues. It has discovered planets with properties science fiction writers could have never imagined, listened to the 'heartbeat' of baby stars, and engaged undergraduate and even high school students in astronomical research. Despite the track record, funding from the Canadian Space Agency for MOST will cease this fall. But Matthews believes MOST is still able to provide invaluable astronomical data and wants to keep the mission going.
The little telescope that could
MOST, Canada's first space telescope and the first spacecraft dedicated to the study of asteroseismology, was launched in 2003 aboard a former Soviet nuclear missile. Its original mission was to obtain ultra-high-precision photometry (brightness measurements) of 10 stars, allowing scientists to better understand the internal structures of stars using techniques similar to those of seismologists. Even though it was a low-budget telescope — $10 million, a bargain in the field — MOST has continued to provide valuable data long after more expensive, and larger, satellites have ceased to operate. Hence its nickname, 'The humble telescope.'
In 2006, MOST discovered a previously unknown class of variable stars, now called slowly pulsating Be stars. In 2011, MOST uncovered a super-exotic, super-Earth planet, 55 Cancri e, a planet twice the diameter of Earth orbiting its sun every 18 hours. Information gathered using MOST has also allowed astronomers to study the internal structures of a wide range of stars of different ages.
"MOST has forced us to rewrite the textbooks. It's shown us that familiar stars we thought we understood are more complicated than we ever imagined," Matthews says.
But the little telescope's greatest achievement, says Matthews, is how it allows students to learn.
"I'm very glad to have been able to enlist students not as assistants, but as partners at all stages of their studies. One of our former undergraduate students, Reka Moldovan Winslow, led the search for asteroids around a star using MOST data. That was the launching pad for her to go on to a PhD thesis based on data from NASA’s Mercury MESSENGER probe mission."
Thirteen of the peer reviewed scientific papers that have been produced using MOST data list undergraduate students as first authors, a rare accomplishment.
Matthews and his team have also accepted research proposals from the general public through an initiative called MOST = My Own Space Telescope. This allowed West Vancouver high school student Aliya-Nur Babul to complete an astronomical study of the red giant star HD 102272. It also gave David Gamey, an astronomy enthusiast and Cub and Scout leader from Etobicoke, a chance to study Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star in the constellation Orion.
Raising money is rocket science
Despite MOST's stellar record, budget constraints led the Canadian Space Agency to end funding the project in September 2014. That has left Matthews trying to find alternative sources to support the satellite’s $300,000 annual operating budget. Some of the money could come from other universities and international space agencies.
"A scientist at Yale University recognizes MOST as the only game in town for certain aspects of her exoplanet studies. She is paying $50,000 from her own research grant to have MOST observe two targets for two months," Matthews says.
Matthews is also considering crowdfunding MOST, establishing yearly missions that could be backed by the public. Although crowdfunding science using platforms such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo may sound unusual, more and more scientists are doing it. The success of such attempts has varied. One campaign this year raised $159,000 — 28 per cent above the original goal of $125,000 — to reboot the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 probe, which launched in 1978 and ceased scientific operations in 1997. But other science fundraising efforts don't fare so well.
Matthews understands little of the intricacies of crowdfunding, but he has been speaking to more experienced parties and believes a compelling argument could be made for the Canadian telescope.
"We don’t want to say 'Give us money to keep us operating forever.' We want to present one-year missions with clearly defined goals. The first mission I propose is to revise the life story of the Sun."
And how exactly could MOST do that? By studying stars similar to the Sun at different stages of their development, allowing us to virtually time travel and picture what the Sun looked like in its infancy and how it might appear in its old age as a massive red dwarf. Understanding other stars ultimately allows us to gain a better understanding of our home planet and home star.
The benefit of using MOST for such a mission is its low price tag. MOST was meant to function for a year and study 10 stars. Instead, it has been in orbit for 11 years and observed more than 5,000 stars. The discoveries that came after those first mission years are bonus. And though MOST isn't brand new anymore, Matthews says that his team is very familiar with the satellite and has made changes to the software they use, the way they process data, and how they operate the hardware.
"It’s like we have a completely new satellite," Matthews says. "It's a huge, big bang for very little buck. We're getting science at the same level of other space missions that have price tags approaching hundreds of millions of dollars."
Everything about MOST, Matthews says proudly, is small and compact.
Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning
Matthews says MOST could operate until 2020 and even years beyond that. However, there will come a day when his team, and Canada, will have to bid goodbye to the telescope. When that happens, Matthews will take comfort in the knowledge that MOST sparked a revolution in space photometry, pioneering a new way to study the skies.
"I think of MOST as part of my family," Matthews says. "In a real sense, MOST has had babies. Its DNA is in other space missions like BRITE Constellation."
Bright Target Explorer is an international fleet of nanosatellites which are the size of car batteries. The technology behind BRITE, the scientists and engineers behind it, and the scientific goals, all originated with MOST.
"MOST's children are like my grandchildren. The MOST legacy will continue for decades, maybe centuries, to come."
But Matthews hopes that putting MOST in a retirement home is still years off. MOST still has lessons to teach scientists. With the help of the public perhaps the Transformer-like satellite will be able to continue watching the skies.
If you are interested in supporting MOST, please contact the Faculty of Science Development Team at 604.822.3404 or firstname.lastname@example.org.