NASA's low-budget $54 million Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) telescope, launched by an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket Thursday, malfunctioned and may not be able to complete its mission, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood.
NASA officials say the cryogenically cooled 560-pound telescope, which was to study star and galaxy formation, appears to be losing the critical coolant needed for its optical system to collect weak infrared light from deep space targets.
"It's venting cryogenics," an agency official said Friday. "We're still trying to understand why. We still have some hope of recovering it, but we don't know how this will affect its four-month science plan."
The satellite was launched into a 340-mile-high orbit from a drop point 150 miles northwest of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It is not yet known exactly what went wrong, when the problem developed or what the odds are of a recovery. A NASA source said it appears the satellite's Pegasus launch vehicle performed properly.
"It is not known at this time what specifically caused the orientation malfunction on the spacecraft and a further investigation, now under way, is being done to assess the problem," a NASA statement said. "After a successful first pass, an aberration was detected during the second pass and confirmed on the third pass over ground control stations."
One of NASA's smallest spacecraft, WIRE was set to tackle some very big cosmic questions: What is the history of star formation in the universe? How and when are galaxies formed? Answers to these questions would shed strong light on the very nature of the universe.
Dr. Harley Thronson, acting director of the Astronomical Search for Origins science theme at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, said "WIRE will provide us with a wealth of information, which will get us closer to understanding how the universe could reach the point of forming Sun-like stars and Earth-like planets. And, WIRE will do that at a very modest cost."