The Union Recorder

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January 28, 2013

OUR SPACE: Win some, lose some…

ATLANTA —  

It’s been about six years since we first talked about CoRoT, short for Convection, Rotation and Planetary Transits, the French spacecraft that was out there hunting for extrasolar planets. On se souvient?

Since then, the spacecraft hasn’t been in the news much, mostly because its mission went exactly as planned, and it was quietly cruising along, doing its thing and identifying potential candidates for follow-up observation – stars that may have planetary system around them.  Très chic, indeed.

Like other planet hunters such as Kepler, CoRoT works by detecting minute dips in brightness in a star when a planet passes in front of it, and it has identified 34 new planets, observation is almost complete on five more, and another 200 are awaiting detailed observation for confirmation. Oh-là-là, that’s quite a haul in 6 years!

Around four years ago, one of its data processing units failed – and loyal OUR SPACE readers know already what happened then: that’s right, engineers switched to the backup system. Mission saved, back to business as usual, everything hunky-dory, merci beaucoup.

That is, until last November, when the spacecraft suddenly fell silent and no longer sent science data back to Earth. It’s really quite maddening, because engineers have been able to ascertain that it’s not the backup data processing unit that failed, but that it’s a communication issue within the spacecraft. Mon dieu!

And it looks like there’s nothing that can be done to fix it. You know how in science fiction shows they are always able to “re-route the power” (next to the most popular fix of “reversing the polarity” – don’t get me started!). The reality is, if something goes bust up there, that’s usually it. 550 miles above the Earth there is no way to service the telescope, and sadly, everything else on it is working perfectly fine. We just can’t get there to make the repairs.  Quelle dommage!

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