An eye on big results with small price tags

November 11, 2005

One of Canadian research's claims to fame is that it has been forced to learn how to do big science on a small budget (particularly compared with the US). A classic example is what its developers have nicknamed the Humble Space Telescope. More formally known as Most (Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars), the suitcase-sized optical telescope was built and launched for just C$10 million (£4.8 million) in 2003.

By way of comparison, developers of the US Spitzer Space Telescope, launched the same year, boasted that they had cut its projected US$2 billion (£1.1 billion) initial estimated price tag to US$720 million.

The Most telescope grew out of a 1990s initiative by the Canadian Space Agency to conduct science experiments from a microsatellite. While the CSA had not initially envisaged including astronomy, University of Toronto astronomer Slavek Rucinski realised that a satellite stabilising system developed at the university held out the possibility for aiming a small collecting mirror - a mere 15cm across - extremely accurately at nearby stars.

Initially, Most's main scientific rationale was to look at the variations in light from a variety of stars, but even as the telescope was being built, its initiators began to expand their focus to other tasks. Most, which was launched from a Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile, is achieving far more than its modest initial goals.

"We have brought big astronomical science within the budget of a small country," says Most principal investigator Jaymie Matthews of the University of British Columbia.

He says that the team is regularly approached by scientists in other countries who would like to buy the Most satellite in its entirety and use it to launch their own version of a cheap eye in space.
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