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NASA Science

NASA Considers Privatizing GALEX Astrophysics Satellite 71

Posted by timothy
from the I-hear-zuckerberg's-good-for-it dept.
hogghogg writes "The GALEX spacecraft (surveying the Universe in ultraviolet wavelengths at which the atmosphere is close to opaque) is coming to the end of its budget life, but it hasn't finished imaging the entire sky and is still (fairly) functional. A group at Caltech wants to keep it running, so NASA is considering transfer of ownership under the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act, which 'allows the transfer of government-owned excess research equipment to educational institutions and non-profit organizations.' Many NASA missions are terminated for budget reasons at the end of a prescribed period, even while the hardware is still highly functional. Although this is the first-ever transfer from NASA of a functioning satellite, maybe this is just the start for a class of privately run astronomical and Earth-observing facilities in space?"
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NASA Considers Privatizing GALEX Astrophysics Satellite

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  • Win win (Score:5, Interesting)

    by captainpanic (1173915) on Monday February 13, 2012 @07:05AM (#39017711)

    It's a win win situation.

    Win 1. It gets NASA some money. Compared to no money at all, that's a win.
    Win 2. It gets a university or other institute a fantastic toy for a bargain price. Compared to a new satellite, that's a win.

    • Re:Win win (Score:4, Interesting)

      by unixisc (2429386) on Monday February 13, 2012 @07:23AM (#39017767)
      Win 3: It gets interested parties, like universities or other research organizations - profit or not - into doing something whose use to the taxpayer is arguable, and which therefore shouldn't be funded by government. This way, taxpayers don't pay for this, but people who are interested can either pay for it, work on it, or do whatever that either increases its lifespan, or makes maximum use of its remaining life
      • Win 3: It gets interested parties, like universities or other research organizations - profit or not - into doing something whose use to the taxpayer is arguable, and which therefore shouldn't be funded by government.

        Exactly. This satellite is imaging the entire sky, which clearly is the next logical step for a Google Earth / Google Maps hybrid.

        • by d3ac0n (715594)

          To be precise, it's imagine the entire observable universe in ultraviolet wavelengths.

          Not really sure whether that's useful for Google maps. Useful for research though.

          That said, I think that privatization is going to be the future of space exploration and study. We simply can no longer afford the budget to run a massive space program on a national level.

          NASA should be kept around, but on a level of "spaceport administration" for launch sites. Allow the private companies to launch from NASA sites, but N

          • by d3ac0n (715594)

            Grr typos! It's IMAGING the entire observable universe.

            (Of course, Firefox spell check didn't see it because it's spelled correctly. FF doesn't know it's the wrong word.)

      • by Anonymous Coward

        You can argue about the benefits of absolutely anything. I could argue that democracy isn't perfect, I could say that it frequently gives bad results, and so the government shouldn't waste money on elections. "If people are interested in voting, let them pay for it themselves!" Just because I'm able to say this doesn't mean it should happen.

        • Yes, but if you control the Fox News universe, this is the essence of your business model. Its all part of the "opportunity" society, where the public has the "opportunity" to buy every conceivable bad idea and if it sells, it is automatically converted into a good idea.

      • by Rennt (582550)

        Considering private interests will get a functional orbiting satellite for nix that was paid for by taxpayers, I don't think that is the case at all.

        Not that there is anything wrong with the plan if they are just going to junk the thing anyway. It's a great idea even. But beacon of hope for free-market enterprise it is not.

      • Re:Win win (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jythie (914043) on Monday February 13, 2012 @11:24AM (#39020205)
        That is a pretty big leap of logic you have there... 'average people do not understand the benefit, therefor the government shouldn't fund it!'.

        I am always shocked by this type of comment.. coming from someone on a computer.. across the internet.. two technologies developed using public funds that neither private industry nor average people saw a benefit to. Oh, and the whole space program. Private companies did not start becoming 'interested' till public funds did a lot of the high risk basic development for decades.
        • by hairyfeet (841228)

          Welll.......yes and no. the problem with the government is it doesn't take long before Congressman Kickbackus and Senator porkman stick their snouts in it and frankly ruin anything in the never ending pursuit of "bringing home the bacon" and causing costs to shoot through the roof. lets take the shuttle, which i'm actually friends with a NASA engineer that worked on the thing and have actually got to hold some of the blueprints in my hot little hands that he rescued from a dumpster. As he pointed out to me

          • by jythie (914043)
            *nods* no arguments there... the issues of corruption and pork are a huge issue with any large public research project, with NASA being one of the shining examples of just how bad it can get, at least with its big projects (like as you say, the shuttle program).

            Though I think it is an excellent example of risk... such pork is not unique to government, in fact it could be said to be one of the inherent costs/risks of engaging on such larger projects. When you look inside private companies you see the same
    • Re:Win win (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bosef1 (208943) on Monday February 13, 2012 @08:02AM (#39017907)

      The only thing you would probably want to do is make sure any sales come with a mandate that any future data collected on the satellite has to be publicly released or shared freely with NASA (you could even set it up so the private organization gets a year to use the data themselves before they release it). I would hate to see a situation where the Federal government (and the taxpayers) build a satellite (or other technological marvel), and then a senator yanks the funding, and it gets sold at bargin price to a private entitiy in the senator's neighboorhood. I know that sounds fantastical, but we have to prepare for these types of contingencies.

      • Such a mandate is often already in the policy of the university (they publish any results in peer reviewed papers). So, I guess it's just a formality to include that in any deal with NASA and the government... so, yes, that's a good safeguard against abuse by commercial parties with good connections with the senators.

        The only hurdle left is that peer reviewed papers aren't "free" (you have to pay like 20/30 euro for them - which is ridiculously expensive). But that goes for all research that is published in

      • You sound as if you are writing a biography on Senator Shelby from Alabama.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by eyenot (102141)

      FTFA: "This would not involve compensation from Caltech," said Trent Perrotto, a NASA spokesperson. "It would be a transfer of ownership." What money?

      It's not all that much of a "win". The satellite, which could be something everybody in America gets a chance to use, is going to become the private property of not several, not a network or a special organization devoted to the satellite, but just one single university. A very expensive university in California. Why should they get it? Why not MIT? "Why not"

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        FTFA: "This would not involve compensation from Caltech," said Trent Perrotto, a NASA spokesperson. "It would be a transfer of ownership." What money?

        Maybe Caltech will sell naming rights and has to share the money with NASA? ;-)

        1st Reporter: And in today's science news, Papa John's GALEX satellite completed finally its mission of mapping the sky using ultraviolet light.
        2st Reporter: Can you shed a little light on what that means for us "normal folks"?
        1st Reporter: It means Papa John's will offering their classic Moon Pie pizza and their Out of this World moon-cheese bread sticks for only $9.99.
        2st Reporter: Only $9.99? I Guess Herman Cain was on

        • by eyenot (102141)

          NASA is going to need *something* to keep its skeleton staff employed. If they ever want to sell lots of space food, like, stuff you eat when you're an astronaut, please, by all means, sell some of it to me. I love that *%!&. TANG! Foil packets of dehydrated neapolitan ice cream or strawberries! MREs!

      • Re:Win win (Score:5, Informative)

        by YrWrstNtmr (564987) on Monday February 13, 2012 @08:21AM (#39018007)
        The satellite, which could be something everybody in America gets a chance to use, is going to become the private property of not several, not a network or a special organization devoted to the satellite, but just one single university. A very expensive university in California. Why should they get it? Why not MIT? "Why not" a hundred other universities and colleges? It shouldn't be given to Caltech.

        Caltech already runs it, [caltech.edu] and has since the start.
        • by eyenot (102141)

          It looks to me (as another response pointed out) that this is a joint project between NASA, JPL, and Caltech. I guess you can say that if any of the three members wants to take it over, it's not as if it has left any "hands". So, that really moots my entire argument. They *could* make it something that we can all enjoy, but they'd *prefer* to use it as a way to make their college seem more lucrative to engineering minded students.

          • Even more than that:
            Caltech proposed the concept to NASA
            Caltech had a major part in designing it
            Caltech hosts the GALEX Science center
            Caltech continues to staff and run it
            NASA approved, funded, and launched it. Choosing Caltech wasn't just throwing a dart at the map and saying "OK, those guys get it!"

            And (from their About|Basics page) "All observations made by GALEX are publicly available through the Multimission Archive at the Space Telescope institute (MAST) [stsci.edu]."
      • by CBM (51233)

        The satellite, which could be something everybody in America gets a chance to use, is going to become the private property of not several, not a network or a special organization devoted to the satellite, but just one single university. A very expensive university in California. Why should they get it? Why not MIT? "Why not" a hundred other universities and colleges? It shouldn't be given to Caltech.

        Probably because nobody else stepped up to the plate to operate the thing.

        They should wait, it's not like the thing is falling out of the sky, and somebody should set up a nonprofit organization for the purpose of utilizing the satellite.

        There is no "waiting." NASA is going to de-fund this satellite, and the choices are either to decomission it or transfer it to someone else.

        • But if the government can't afford to operate it now that the GOP no longer wants to pay taxes, and if Caltech is the only one willing to step in, probably because via JPL they are heavily involved in the contracts for running the project, does it make sense to wait and let the satellite go unused given the potentially short remaining lifespan of the satellite?

          • by eyenot (102141)

            ... no, it doesn't. The satellite should get full use.

            I just think it would take only a couple of months to organize a nonprofit devoted to maintaining the satellite, and that those couple of months won't mean a whole lot in the long run. The satellite doesn't need to be maintained by taxes, it's already up in the air. It can be put on standby, and then taken off standby later on by its new owner with the operating manuals in hand. It's not like as soon as the project is decommissioned, that the thing sudde

      • by hairyfeet (841228)

        He's talking about making sure we don't end up with a repeat of the C130 firefighting scandal a few years back. For those that didn't hear of it (My GoogleFU sucketh, maybe someone can find a link?) a few insiders ended up setting up a deal where they got practically new C130s given to them for NO cost in return for their junker 50+ year old cargo planes to be used in "museums" that didn't exist or want the things, they were also supposed to have them ready to use if the forrestry service needed them for fi

      • "Credentialed members of the public should be able to either buy survey time or sign up for free observation time."

        Is there really an actual market for optical slices of the universe? Is the size of this market actually big enough to support running the infrastructure necessary to obtain and process the results? Will the taxpayer have to pay again to get these results? Those are the questions that need some answers. Privatizing space technology is more about hype associated with landing government contr

        • by eyenot (102141)

          I'm sure a nonprofit organization can receive enough benefits (donations) to maintain the bottom line while also selling slices and giving some away free.

          But... you have a good point. CalTech can justify it because students will now be even more willing to pay. At least it restricts the impact on society to a smallish group.

          I still believe it should be something everybody can use. I'm sure if enough people believed the same, it would receive the needed funding every year.

    • Win 1. It gets NASA some money. Compared to no money at all, that's a win.

      Nope. Read the linked article - no money or other compensation will change hands. It's a donation to the university.

    • by hairyfeet (841228)
      And don't forget the biggest winner of all...We, The People will learn that much more about the universe around us as the knowledge the guys at Caltech gather from this sat will be shared with all of us. Allow me to say that since we've quit wasting huge amounts of the whole "Meatbags in spaaaace!" bit that I'm personally really happy with the direction NASA has taken, they seem to be really focused on probes and sats that can give us maximum knowledge for the dollar and the amount of hard science the guys
      • by Morty (32057)

        NASA hasn't stopped funding "meatbags in space". The ISS is still up there and receiving lots of NASA funding for operations and training. NASA is paying the Russians for rides to and from the ISS. NASA is paying SpaceX to send cargo to the ISS. NASA hopes to eventually pay SpaceX and other COTS providers to ferry humans to and from ISS. And the SLS is funded with lots of money to restore NASA's capability to send meatbags beyond Low Earth Orbit.

        For better or for worse, NASA continues to fund both man

    • So are universities/private contractors on the hook after the satellite goes dark, loses orbit, and crashes into a metropolis somewhere?

      Do do universities/private contractors get to fund the launch the next replacement satellite, when the old one finally fails?

      Will the public have to pay for the final results?

      Perhaps this may be a good thing, if it begins to spread the costs of space technology onto those who most benefit from the results. However, my sense is that "space economics" will wither unless ther

  • Lose lose (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vikingpower (768921) <exercitussolus@g ... om minus painter> on Monday February 13, 2012 @07:09AM (#39017725) Homepage Journal
    It's a lose lose situation: 1) Scientists worldwide become dependent upon private initiatives; we have seen with European universities having to collect so-called 3rd-party funding what that does to research levels 2) In the long run, it causes NASA to lose ( even more ) competence; competence and know-how loss at NASA is already going on at a dishearteningly rate
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Short term result: This satellite has a second chance to complete its task. Win.

      Long term result: Neutral, no effect.

      If the original proposal to launch this thing had been handed to the group who now want to run it, they would have just laughed and said they couldn't afford it. Scientists who want space telescopes are dependent on NASA or ESA, with no private alternatives. That's not likely to change anytime soon, no matter what the SpaceX marketing team would have us believe about launch costs. As far as c

    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      If this satellite hadn't been built and launched by NASA in the first place then this post might make a lick of sense. As it is: NASA has a finite budget, NASA sometimes has to end programs due to lack of funds to continue them even though the hardware is still working, and letting some private organization use the hardware is better than not using it at all.

      NASA develops, launches, and runs a satellite for a while and then a university acquires the satellite that they could never have afforded to develo

      • If it is, INDEED, a university that acquires the satellite for a relatively low price - then well, yes, heck, you will have done something to me that a Slashdot commenter will not have done very often: to make me change my mind on the basis of rational arguments. For which you merit my respect and acknowledgments. QFD.
  • Sweet... (Score:4, Funny)

    by wbr1 (2538558) on Monday February 13, 2012 @07:25AM (#39017771)

    ....under the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act, which 'allows the transfer of government-owned excess research equipment to educational institutions and non-profit organizations.

    I am going to start a nonprofit and buy Spirit and Opportunity. See my crowdtilt and kickstarter projects to donate :-).

    In all seriousness, this is a good idea to keep NASA tools going. I like it.

  • by blind biker (1066130) on Monday February 13, 2012 @07:30AM (#39017785) Journal

    On the face of it, this seems like a common sense piece of legislation that benefits everyone and not just the corporations.

    How the fuck did that happen?

    • As stated above in "Lose lose", I fail to see how this benefits anyone. NASA ( or ESA, for that matter ) is payed only a fraction, if anything at all, for old equipment. Moreover: is this is so "common sense", why do the USA need a law to implement it ??
      • by necro81 (917438) on Monday February 13, 2012 @08:24AM (#39018025) Journal

        Moreover: is this is so "common sense", why do the USA need a law to implement it

        It involves the ownership transfer of government property, theoretically owned by the taxpayer, to a private entity. It's not that such things need specific authorization in law, but rather that the mechanism for that transfer needs to be codified. You and I might be fine transferring ownership of a car by exchanging $1, signing the back of the title, and shaking hands. But for a $100-million satellite we all payed for that requires some fairly sophisticated care, a more formal process is warranted.

        • by jythie (914043)
          *nods* esp when it comes to dealing with corruption. Though this is so rampent with things like land rights already, they could probably just scrap the buecracy and get a net win...
      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        As stated above in "Lose lose", I fail to see how this benefits anyone. NASA ( or ESA, for that matter ) is payed only a fraction, if anything at all, for old equipment.

        A fantastic instrument -- that is already paid for -- continues to be used to advance scientific knowledge instead of just floating uselessly around the earth until its orbit decays.

        You fail to see how this benefits anyone?

        Are you mental, or do you just not see any value in astronomy to begin with?

      • Yeah, I read your "lose lose" post - and found it stupid and uninformed. Sorry, but you didn't understand the first thing of what is going on, wrote a post that a few pathetic idiots modded up - but that doesn't mean it's relevant to the discussion at hand.

    • by wbr1 (2538558)
      Pure accident. Someone goofed.
      • Pure accident. Someone goofed.

        That must have been akin to the "million monkeys million typewriters"-scenario. Eventually they will write "War and peace".

        Or a sensible law.

  • Thank goodness we have laws that prevent us from selling satellites to private entities. They might use it to turn a profit and buy a CEO a jet, yacht, or something similar.

    • And why not in the next generation of satellites, tag on a communications module to help pay for the pure research being done from that platform? I realize that the orbital requirements and other aspects may be different, but perhaps not mutually exclusive.
  • Anyone know when the International Space Station goes up for sale?
    Just need to work on how to get there.

  • so you create stuff with people's money, and then just transfer it to private parties to make profit or not make profit - in the end, essentially relinquishing all control of something that was made with PUBLIC money to some PRIVATE entity. therefore, basically letting go of people's control on something made with people's own money.

    Aaah capitalism.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The government does this all the time - it is called "surplus." They bought it, don't need it anymore - I'd rather it still be useful than just out there as another piece of space junk.

    • How is this any different than the surplus auctions? It has lived it planned and funded life, note I did not say it's intended life. It now becomes surplus just like any other chair, computer, or vehicle.
    • by Hartree (191324)

      Caltech already runs the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that controls a lot of science satellites. Yes, it does so under contract, and yes, it is a "private" university.

      In reality, this is so close to transfering it to the people who are already running it, that your fears seem a lot overblown.

      You'd rather just turn it off?

      Sounds a lot like what happens at other universities in some states since the rules for auctioning off surplus property are so byzantine that it's cheaper and easier just to trash a multi thou

    • by unixisc (2429386)
      It's called 'not throwing good money after bad'. While one can argue whether the government should have funded NASA in the first place, the least one can agree on is that when there is a debt and deficit crisis that doesn't justify the government continuing to burn money on such things, it makes sense to let go of that liability. Well, guess what - letting go of that liability means letting go of that ownership. If the government is going to let go of the ownership, then it's immaterial as to whether the
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Well, "privatize" should here be taken with a grain of salt. The S-W Act only allows sale to non-profit or educational institutions. That's hardly on the same scale as selling it to, say, Koch Industries. Research institutions, in particular, operate onder fairly strict guidelines regarding what they can do with their property (for example, a university I worked at for a while had a huge scandal a few years ago when it discovered the facilities manager taking home stuff they were throwing out). Even surplus
    • by necro81 (917438)

      letting go of people's control on something made with people's own money

      I might grouse about that, too. But then I just need to remember the alternative: that it sits up there, defunct, in orbit forever (it's in a 700-km orbit), or gets incinerated in a controlled de-orbit. In either case, it's lost to us. Better someone be able to make use of it.

      If I could provide input to such decisions, I would advocate that a condition of the arrangement be that the public have free and unfettered access to the

  • "maybe this is just the start for a class of privately run astronomical and Earth-observing facilities in space?"
    - If a university or a national research body (not necessarily in USA, somewhere in Europe, or India, or China or whereever) "bought" the satellite, would this be something novel? Do universities or other non-government research units own satellites? If so, it might not be big news....

    On the other hand, if Google/Elsevier Publications/Microsoft buy it and start charging university researchers for

    • by decsnake (6658)

      not new at all.

      I think the only thing that's new here is attaching the buzzword "privatizing" to something that NASA has done for at least 30 years.

      When Congress funds a NASA project they generally agree to fund operation of it for a period of time, say 10 years. If at the end of that time the project is still doing useful science NASA has the option of going back to Congress and asking for authorization to continue operating the project or they can turn the project over to some other organization for

  • by TwineLogic (1679802) on Monday February 13, 2012 @09:07AM (#39018337)
    Caltech operates a federal lab, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and receives federal money to do so. The Institute ("Universtiy") is run from that source of funding.
    • Caltech operates a federal lab, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and receives federal money to do so. The Institute ("Universtiy") is run from that source of funding.

      Caltech is not run by money from from the federal government. JPL is run by Caltech using federal money. The chemistry (and other unreleated) labs on campus are not (at least not any more so than at any other university; pretty much every university in the country receives some source of funding from the federal government, through grants from thttp://science.slashdot.org/story/12/02/13/0331221/nasa-considers-privatizing-galex-astrophysics-satellite#he NSF, DOE, etc.)

  • Privatization didn't work that well when NOAA was forced to privatize [nasa.gov] the Landsat satellite data to EOSAT/Space Imaging. .

  • Hopefully Caltech has a nice endowment that can help them operate GALEX, because it will not be cheap. Maybe they can help train students to be future satellite operators, and save costs that way.

    I was involved in a recent decommissioning of a NASA satellite. We tried to look for a privitization route, but the private funds and the timing just didn't come together in time. Kudos to Caltech for putting this together for GALEX.

  • Why not transfer it to NOAA's Satellite Service (NESDIS)?

    NOAA's Office of Satellite and Product Operations ( http://www.ospo.noaa.gov/ [noaa.gov] ) in NESDIS is fully capable and staffed for performing 24/7 satellite operations of production systems, or older NASA research satellites. Unlike a private initiative, OSPO is already paid for by the american people, and makes the data available to everyone.

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