NASA Researches Dark Energy with Spy Satellite

| 4 Jun 2012 22:21

An unused reconnaissance satellite could shed light on the expanding universe.

If the used game debate is anything to go by, people have really mixed feelings about buying secondhand goods. One of the most common defenses of used games is that they're very affordable to people on a budget. Imagine, then, that your budget has been slashed and your favorite toy is about to break. NASA recently found itself in such a position, but the National Reconnaissance Office was there to help. Two space telescopes - just as big as the Hubble, but with better hardware - came into NASA's hands via the American intelligence organization. Instead of documenting the Earth below it, one of the telescopes will turn heavenwards to research dark energy, the theoretical substance that keeps the universe expanding at an accelerating pace.

John Grunsfeld, a physicist and astronaut best known for spacewalking to repairing the Hubble Telescope, came across the two telescopes with staggering 94" mirrors in January 2011. "We can't say what they were used for," says Grunsfeld, although a colleague of his added that they were designed to monitor the Earth's surface, not the distant stars. Astronomers have been lobbying for a powerful telescope to study dark energy since 2010, but budget restrictions at NASA put the project on hold until at least 2024. NASA estimates that the acquisition of the two spy satellites (which are twice as large as the one initially proposed) saved American taxpayers over $250 million and moved the project ahead for a tentative 2020 launch date, provided that NASA can lobby for the necessary funds.

Adam Riess, astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University and recent Nobel Prize winner, advises caution, however. While a $250 million savings sounds good on paper, Riess believes that the project is still too far-off and speculative to make any meaningful financial estimations. He adds, though, that, "When someone hands you a hand-me-down like that, you have to be excited. They're not sitting around at Walmart."

Whether one or both telescopes will even get off the ground will very much depend on the political and economic climate of the United States over the next ten years or so. That said, learning more about one of the most mysterious and fundamental forces in the universe seems well worth the cost of investment. The study of dark energy should be of particular interest to Mass Effect 3 fans, who may recall that the game's original ending relied upon it as a major plot point. It's worth thinking about: Will NASA discover how the universe ends, or call forth the Reapers and cause that ending themselves?

Source: The New York Times

Image: HubbleSite

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