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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK


Tiny telescope uncovers big secrets

Soaring hopes were later dashed

A tiny space telescope, part of a satellite that failed and was written off, has obtained the first ever observations of starquakes on a sun other than our own.

The Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) satellite was designed to scan the heavens with a 30-centimetre, cryogenically-cooled, infrared-imaging telescope. It was declared a failure on 8 March 1999, four days after launch, when its cooling hydrogen leaked.

But something aboard still worked, a five centimetre (two inch) telescope used simply to point the satellite in the right direction.

Bright idea

[ image: Two inch telescope guided the satellite]
Two inch telescope guided the satellite
Derek Buzasi, an astronomer at the University of California, got the idea that the little instrument could actually still be used for serious research.

On Earth, such a tiny telescope would be little more than a child's toy. That is because the Earth's atmosphere refracts and distorts light, the same phenomenon that makes stars seem to twinkle.

But up in space, away from gas, dust and pollution, a five centimetre telescope can see a lot.

Dr Buzasi approached Nasa about using the telescope, which has a camera attached, and got permission to start recording data with the help of the scientists who worked on the WIRE satellite.

Since then, he has been able to observe vibrations on the surface of Alpha Ursae Majoris, a bright yellow star in the constellation of the Great Bear.

[ image: Starquakes provide information about a star's interior]
Starquakes provide information about a star's interior
It is the first time anyone has observed so-called starquakes on a normal, cool star other than the Sun.

Starquakes are important because they can tell astronomers a lot about the star's mass, age and chemical composition.

Like phoenix from the fire

"We are just delighted that something came out of the ashes, that someone with a brilliant idea was able to bring it to us and we could figure out how to make it happen with such a tiny telescope," said Carol Lonsdale, science operation centre manager for the WIRE project team based at Caltech.

[ image: WIRE before launch]
WIRE before launch
Dr Buzasi is also happy with the output of the little instrument, which is 200 times smaller in diameter than the largest Earth based telescopes, the twin Keck reflectors on Hawaii.

"When you get down to doing some very specific kinds of science, it becomes extremely competitive. This telescope can do the job 10 times faster than Keck, simply because it has the big advantage of being outside the atmosphere."

The other advantage is that unlike Earth instruments, where scientists compete for time to use them, Dr Buzasi has exclusive use of his telescope, and has been able to work uninterrupted for weeks, long enough to accumulate the wealth of data he needs.

He has been told he can use the instrument at least until November.

Main photo: Brian Webb

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