Astronomers have given up hope of getting any science out of the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) spacecraft. NASA officials announced today that the $54 million orbiting telescope, launched just 4 days ago, has had a fatal loss of the liquid hydrogen coolant needed to operate its main instrument.
WIRE was designed to ferret out previously invisible galaxies with unusually high rates of star formation. These "starburst" or "star nursery" galaxies emit much of their radiation in the far-infrared portion of the spectrum. To detect the emissions, researchers built an innovative 30-centimeter aperture telescope, supercooled to 7 degrees Kelvin. The chilling ensured that heat from the telescope would not mask the infrared emissions the instrument was supposed to spend 4 months tracking.
Shortly after WIRE's launch, however, ground controllers discovered that the telescope's hydrogen coolant had begun to escape, spurting out in a jet that pushed the spacecraft into a rapid spin. Unable to stop the leak, engineers could not begin stabilizing the 250-kilogram craft until Saturday, after the coolant was exhausted. They hope to begin investigating the accident later this week, after regaining complete control of the satellite. When the postmortem is complete, they will use the crippled craft as a technology test-bed, running its array of new navigation and communications equipment through checkups.
Disappointed NASA officials were putting an optimistic spin on the day's bad news, saying that future spacecraft will take up the fallen WIRE's work. "Many of [WIRE's] scientific goals can be accomplished by upcoming missions such as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility," said NASA space science chief Ed Weiler. "So it will be science delayed--rather than science lost."