NASA is sending a reliable servant into a retirement that will end with a fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere in about 65 years. That's the fate that awaits the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, the "galaxy hunter" space telescope whose original 29-month mission was extended to more than 10 years.
Along the way, the orbiting system, known as GALEX, helped scientists study how galaxies and stars are born, and how they change over time.
Since its launch in the spring of 2003, GALEX photographed nebulae and spiral galaxies, and "used its ultraviolet vision to study hundreds of millions of galaxies across 10 billion years of cosmic time," NASA says.
GALEX was shut down at 3:09 p.m. ET Friday, when a decommission signal was sent to the orbiting craft, according to NASA, which has also published a photo gallery of compelling images from the project.
"GALEX is a remarkable accomplishment," says Jeff Hayes, NASA's GALEX program executive in Washington. "This small Explorer mission has mapped and studied galaxies in the ultraviolet, light we cannot see with our own eyes, across most of the sky."
The space agency published this list of highlights in GALEX's career:
- Discovering a gargantuan, comet-like tail behind a speeding star called Mira.
- Catching a black hole "red-handed" as it munched on a star.
- Finding giant rings of new stars around old, dead galaxies.
- Independently confirming the nature of dark energy.
- Discovering a missing link in galaxy evolution — the teenage galaxies transitioning from young to old.
And they're likely to be joined by other revelations, as the reams of data yielded by the space telescope project are reviewed. NASA and the California Institute of Technology, which manages the Jet Propulsion Lab for the space agency, plan to release the project's most recent data to the public in the next 12 months.
"GALEX, the mission, may be over, but its science discoveries will keep on going," says NASA's Kerry Erickson, the mission's project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.