After a decade of scanning the universe, NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory has a new lease on life – one that could extend its mission through 2013, and possibly longer.
NASA officially extended the 10-year-old Chandra mission by extending its science support contract by $172 million, which will fund the effort through 2013 and bring its total base cost up to $545 million. Options for two more life extensions for the healthy space telescope could increase its value to $913 million, NASA officials said.
"I think it's very good news," said astronomer Roger Brissenden, manager and flight director of the Chandra X-ray Center overseeing the space telescope's science operations. "It shows they really do have confidence that the spacecraft is healthy and able to do good science."
The Chandra X-ray Observatory was initially built for a five-year mission that was extended by five more years in 2004. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the mission.
Chandra launched in 1999 aboard the space shuttle Columbia and is one of NASA's Great Observatories — an exclusive group of space telescopes that includes the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, and the now de-orbited Compton Gamma-ray Observatory.
Because Chandra focuses its telescopic eye solely on the high-energy X-ray signals in space, it has been an invaluable tool for understanding the structure and evolution of the universe, researchers said. Without it, astronomers would only see part of the cosmic picture, they added.
"The universe we live in is a multi-wavelength universe, and to understand the universe we need to see [the entire spectrum of light]," Brissenden told Space.com. "Chandra is just critical because it provides the high-energy component of that picture."
In addition to the latest extension, NASA also announced the potential for two more extensions — each three years long — that could boost the Chandra telescope's science life to Sept. 30, 2018, with an extra year for follow-up studies, pushing the mission into its second decade.
The extra three-year extensions, if approved, could add another $368 million in funding for Chandra's science team, bringing the space telescope's total mission cost since 1999 to its potential $913 million total, NASA officials said.
Brissenden said a study of Chandra's health has found it in extremely robust shape despite its more than 10 years in space. The orbiting telescope's power and propulsion systems have enough reserves to last well beyond 2013 to at least 2018 and mission scientists have high hopes that they'll get the chance to use them.
"There's enough fuel for many tens of years," Brissenden said. "The 20-year mission would be within reach."
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