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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 20 | December 13, 2001

Satellite to launch in space next year

Tiny observatory has a big mission: date the universe

by Don Wells, staff writer

Physics and astronomy Assoc. Prof. Jaymie Matthews' 2001 space odyssey will have to wait until 2002. December of 2002 to be exact.

That's when a Russian launch vehicle -- once deployed as an intercontinental ballistic missile -- is scheduled to carry his suitcase-sized satellite into orbit. That suitcase will be packed with Canada's first space telescope, designed and built by UBC scientists.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and German-Russian consortium Eurockot Launch Services signed a contract last month to launch the Canadian Space Agency's Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) microsatellite.

Matthews leads a team of instrument scientists and engineers in the Physics and Astronomy Dept., as well as astrophysicists from across Canada, the us and Austria.

Together, they have constructed a tiny space observatory that will help address two questions that fire the imaginations of experts and laypeople alike: how old is our universe, and what are planets like outside our solar system?

"It should be a great Christmas gift next year," says Matthews, who just returned from a launch planning meeting in Moscow. "By that time, if all goes according to plan, the MOST team should be opening up brand new frontiers in astronomy and space technology."

MOST will measure subtle variations and vibrations in the light from distant stars, seeing changes in the relative brightness of the star as small as only one part in a million.

"No existing instrument on earth or space is able to detect that level of change in another star," says Matthews, "but MOST will be able to see it."

Matthews explains that the sun and stars like it are literally ringing due to sound waves bouncing around their gaseous interiors. The waves are generated by turbulent motions at the surface, but travel right through the core of the star, revealing its inner characteristics in the same manner that earthquake vibrations enable geoseismologists to explore the interior of the Earth.

By applying this technique, called asteroseismology, to some of the oldest stars in the Milky Way, Matthews and his research team expect to set a meaningful lower limit on the age of the universe.

MOST will also study the sizes and compositions of sun-like stars known to have planets.

"MOST is an example of how small, dedicated space science missions can deliver a big bang for the buck," Matthews quips. "Canada is becoming a pioneer in this new approach to microsatellite research, thanks to spacecraft control technology developed in Toronto matched to scientific and technical expertise here at UBC."

The $11 million project is a joint effort of the CSA, UBC, Dynacon Enterprises Ltd. of Toronto and the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies.

And how does Matthews feel about this Canadian satellite going up on a Russian rocket?

"I think it's great. We're beating a nuclear sword into a scientific ploughshare."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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