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GALEX decommissioned: What happens to abandoned space probes?

NASA's earth-orbiting GALEX was shut down Friday, meaning that the spacecraft will join a long line of space probes sacrificed to the universe.

Image

This NASA Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) mosaic of ultraviolet images obtained from December 2003 shows the large galaxy in Andromeda, Messier 31.

NASA/California Institute of Technology /AFP

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The pink slip was delivered at 3:09 p.m. EDT on Friday in Dulles, Vermont. The order: decommission Galaxy Evolution Explorer.

And so, after about a decade of use, the power was flicked off on GALEX.

The Earth-orbiting spacecraft – which had been cut from NASA’s budget in February 2011 and had survived off funds from the California Institute of Technology – had racked up a sizable roster of discoveries during its mission, observing the teenage-stage of galaxy growth, a black hole consuming a star, the presence of new stars around dead galaxies, and insights into the nature of dark energy.

The spacecraft will remain in orbit for at least another 65 years, floating glumly and uselessly around the Earth. Then it will fall back toward the planet, burning up as it re-enters the atmosphere, doing one last service as a “shooting star” on which a celestial-looking child might make a wish – just as writer Ray Bradbury, in his 1951 story Kaleidoscope, imagined an unlucky, falling astronaut as the object on which a small Illinois boy pins all his hopes. 

GALEX’s sad, lonely end is typical. Few objects launched into space have hope of seeing Earth again. Unless, of course, there are people on board, that brave object is designed not to come back to us, but to serve its mission and then remain out there as a teeny record of human ingenuity and curiosity floating through an impassive universe.

Some of these explorers, like GALEX, will meet a sudden end. Our space record is packed with casualties – spacecraft that made fatal landings and the dust of which has been received neatly into the universe. There was Russia’s Venera 3, a Venus-bound probe that crashed into the planet in 1966. And there’s the US’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which in 1998 made a faulty entry into the planet’s orbit and fizzled up in the unfriendly atmosphere.

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