A space telescope designed to sort through the chemical muck and star-making stew of the universe will begin scouring for the fossil record of the origins of the universe when it is launched from Cape Canaveral in early summer.
The bold examination--of objects from nearby planets to the extreme outskirts of the cosmos--is expected to reveal the earliest relics of the Big Bang and provide a detailed picture of the immense galactic structure of the Milky Way. In the end, scientists say the satellite should help them make a huge leap toward understanding how the primordial chemical elements, out of which all life evolved, were created and distributed since the beginning of time. Among the questions:
What were conditions like moments after the Big Bang?
How do galaxies evolve?
Does the Milky Way have a vast galactic fountain that births stars, spews hot gas, circulates chemicals and churns cosmic material over and over again?
Will a fossil remnant of earliest times subvert the most fundamental suppositions of the Big Bang theory?
On June 23, a team led by The Johns Hopkins University is scheduled to launch a satellite named FUSE--for Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer--and begin a long-awaited quest to cull answers to some of these vexing questions about the origins of the universe.
"The big questions are these: Do we understand the origins of the universe, and do we understand how galaxies evolve?" said Ken Sembach, a Hopkins scientist working on the project. "Because FUSE can observe wavelengths of light that aren't accessible to other telescopes, we will be able to test models of chemical evolution in unique ways and extrapolate back in time to determine the primordial abundance of an isotope called deuterium, which very well may test the limits of the Big Bang theory."
As one of the first missions in NASA's Origins Program, FUSE extends astronomy's reach much further into the ultraviolet wavelength region, allowing astronomers to test fundamental models of cosmic construction. The search begins like an archaeological dig around the first minutes of creation. In this case, however, the fossil remnant is not the outline of a leaf or a bone but evidence of a hydrogen isotope created solely in the Big Bang called deuterium.
FUSE's instrument will conduct a kind of spectroscopic surgery into the past and present, sampling measures of deuterium and other elements in a variety of places, from the inner recesses of our solar system to the nether-reaches of the Milky Way. Relying on the telescope's finely tuned instrument, astronomers will be able to set an accurate benchmark for the amount of deuterium in the Milky Way. With that information, they can then "look back" into time and determine what conditions were like in the infant universe moments after the Big Bang.
Because star creation itself is thought to depend on the regular destruction of deuterium--as it is essentially chewed up when hydrogen converts to helium--a map of deuterium abundances in many regions of the Milky Way galaxy will give scientists a better understanding of how chemicals are mixed and distributed and destroyed.
By concentrating on the structure and galactic fountain of the Milky Way, astronomers may end up with a more trusted model of galactic processes in general.
"We will learn a lot about circulation and mixing of chemicals in galaxies and in the star-forming process," said William Blair, a Hopkins research scientist working on the project. "Are there great galactic fountains constantly cycling material through supernovae explosions and stellar winds, bursting out of the plane of their galaxies, squirting up into haloes, cooling and falling back into the mix? At some level, it must be happening. But we hope to quantify it in a way that has never been done before."
That such an ambitious program arises from one academic department on a small campus in Baltimore might once have seemed preposterous. But besides its commitment to bold astronomy, the FUSE team has made an equally bold commitment to a unique way of doing business, reflecting the desire of one federal agency's goal to do things differently.
In 1995, in an effort to save money, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose Johns Hopkins to be the first college campus ever to manage an aerospace project of such magnitude. Heading toward launch, the cost of the mission is about one-third what NASA estimated before inviting Hopkins to take over the project. As another indication of the project's distinctiveness, after launch and for the next three years, FUSE will be controlled and operated by a team of scientists, engineers and students on the first floor of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy on the Homewood campus.
Astronomer Warren Moos Sees End to a 20-Year AdventureFUSE was almost the mission that wasn't.
The world's newest orbital satellite, which will test the Big Bang theory and tell astronomers how chemicals mix and filter throughout the universe, is scheduled for launch in a few weeks.
But for the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, the road to launch has been long and painstaking. In fact, it took 20 years, with Johns Hopkins astronomer Warren Moos, the project's principal investigator, shepherding the satellite through a series of narrow, sometimes teetering, gates.
What began as an idea from a survey of needs by the National Academy of Sciences in 1980 eventually became a plan that competed with dozens of deserving proposals from around the country. FUSE was distinctive, in part, because it was developed to build on data derived from the eight-year (1972 to 1980) Copernicus satellite and on pathfinding work that would be done by the Hubble Space Telescope's ultraviolet instruments.
The big science Moos and his team set out for FUSE also happened to tackle some of the most fundamental questions about the origins of the universe.
"We needed this follow-on to Copernicus," Moos recalls. "And we needed the ability to discern shorter wavelengths and have more sensitivity than Copernicus so we could reach well across our galaxy and into ones that are far distant. As soon as the call for proposals was made, we went right to work."
Unfortunately, as Moos and his team drafted their request, the Challenger rocket exploded, in January 1986. Although NASA officials assured him that they would still accept proposals, like many aerospace projects, FUSE became trapped in the indecision and chaotic aftermath of the Challenger accident. It wasn't until 1988 that NASA selected four finalists and then called for another competition.
"So they picked us and three others," Moos recalled, "and then said, OK, now you've got to duke it out."
The competition whittled the field down to two--the FUSE project and one other--and the next year FUSE was finally chosen for the award.
In 1990, Moos got his funding.
A team of engineers and astronomers worked under his leadership for the next four years--planning and designing the spacecraft, honing specifications for the telescope and expanding a list of science goals.
Then, one day in 1994, the call came.
"I picked up the phone, and it was NASA," Moos remembers. "They said it was simple: FUSE will not go through. They said it just wouldn't survive the next round of budget cuts. And I thought, But we're only a year away. We'd gone from feasibility to planning to design, and there we were, only months away from making hardware--and someone pulled the plug.
"We had a team and lots of engineers and all these hard-working people pulling the project toward a final build program. And we'd spent close to $20 million at that point. You know, that's a little further along than a bunch of guys sitting around drinking coffee saying, Hey wouldn't it be neat to do this satellite mission? We were in the soup."
In fact, there was no joy in the news for NASA administrators, either. Besides the agency's financial commitment, FUSE also continued to have strong backing from the science community. Bowed but not defeated, Moos and agency officials kept working on the problem. Seventy-two hours after the death knell rang, Moos made a proposal.
"We went back to them and said we could do it, but we'd have to set a tight schedule, and we'd have to cut payroll significantly. We had to downsize, and we had to work fast."
NASA administrators agreed, and the proposal met with a good reception.
"I think NASA was prepared to listen to us because they were already looking down this road. They could see that if the university took over the program, we could hire our own contractors and cut costs. So when we said, 'How much can you give us?' they didn't brush it off. They just set a price 60 percent below estimates and chopped the schedule 40 percent. And, believe it or not, we saw that we could do it--'But,' we said, 'only if you give us control.' "
Dennis McCarthy had come to Johns Hopkins after managing the very successful COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite mission.
"I left NASA in '94 to come to Hopkins to build this new scientific instrument called FUSE, go to school and be a teacher," Mc-Carthy recalls. "Five weeks to the day after I started, we got a call saying the FUSE program had been canceled. That was when I found out the difference between being a hired employee and having tenure as a faculty member."
Together, Moos and McCarthy knew that if the university took over the program management, they could operate the project like any other commercial contractor. The team could use off-the-shelf hardware for the spacecraft and ground system, buy other materials and services on fixed-price contracts and develop parts of the instrument with their science collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Colorado. Furthermore, the infrastructure at Johns Hopkins was already in place, with plenty of expertise and sound experience from the Applied Physics Laboratory and a number of faculty who had worked in the planning, design and launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Costs, McCarthy and Moos pledged, could shrink substantially.
Importantly, four of the most significant corporate players in the project had their headquarters or offices in Maryland. The Orbital Sciences Corp., of Germantown, designed and built the spacecraft. Swales Aerospace, in Beltsville, designed the instrument structure. Interface Control Systems, of Columbia, designed the software for the instrument flight computer and for the satellite control center. AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp., of Columbia, developed the ground station and is also helping Johns Hopkins operate the mission. The satellite received its final qualifying tests for flight at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt. APL served as the location for the satellite's final assembly. The Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees Hubble operations and is located on the Homewood campus, across the street from the Astronomy Department, developed science data-processing and -planning software.
There was no new technology to be built except for the detector and gratings on the instrument; most of the software could be developed from the Hubble heritage; McCarthy wisely linked the mission operations team with integration and testing teams, a streamlining effort that will lessen the learning curve for mission operations once the satellite is in orbit.
When FUSE launches, McCarthy and Moos will share the satisfaction of having kept the costs down to one-third of the project's original estimates.
"This is the wave of the future," McCarthy says today. "Scientists will be doing these projects at universities now because you can buy just about everything you need except the scientific instruments. Many professors around the world now understand that NASA wants these missions done outside their gates, so they are becoming very creative. And they are looking to FUSE to show them the way."
They beat the competition, waited through delays, roughed it out during a budget crunch and rose phoenix-like from the ashes.
For 15 years, Warren Moos has kept FUSE on track. As an academician whose real interest is the interstellar medium, not bureaucratic politics or contract procurement or corporate husbandry, he now anxiously awaits a wealth of scientific data that he and his colleagues have desired for so long.
"You know, universities don't normally administer space
contracts," Moos says, reflecting on the unusually successful
effort. "NASA and Johns Hopkins simply believed we could do
it--for the sake of science."
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