The Union Recorder

January 28, 2013

OUR SPACE: Win some, lose some…

Beate Czogalla
The Union-Recorder

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!

Well, what a bummer, right? And to add insult to injury, the CoRoT mission had just been approved for a three-year mission extension only days before it stopped working… that’s like having a winning lottery ticket and accidentally putting it in the laundry. Quelle horreur!!

And while CoRoT may now be a perfectly functional but mute spacecraft out there, there’s no denying the fact that despite its unglamorous ending it’s had a great run. Scientists will be pouring over CoRoT’s data for years to come, and it’s anybody’s guess at this time on how many planets it really discovered, since that’s a slow and painstaking process. Oui, oui, mes amis.

And so – farewell, CoRoT, adieu, et c’est la vie. It was a great mission while it lasted. At least none of us will have to worry about finding CoRoT stuck in their cabbage patch anytime soon – it’s pretty far out there!

Brush up on your knowledge about the debonair planet hunter at http://smsc.cnes.fr/COROT/

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at   our_space2@yahoo.com