Astro's brilliant discoveries dimmed by news that it may not fly again

January 18, 1991|By Luther Young | Luther Young,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA -- Scientists presented their initial discoveries and some spectacular ultraviolet images from the Astro-1 space shuttle mission yesterday, but their enthusiasm was tempered by knowledge that the $150 million NASA observatory may never fly again.

Astro's four telescopes -- including the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope -- studied some of the hottest, most violent objects in the universe in December.

Despite faulty telescope pointing, computer failures and a clog in the shuttle's wastewater system that shortened the mission and reduced the number of observations, HUT's chief scientist, Arthur F. Davidsen, called it "a very successful mission" yesterday at the conclusion of the 177th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Philadelphia.

But Astro -- originally planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for at least three missions -- apparently has been grounded after the inaugural flight, a budgetary decision conveyed earlier this week to astronomers at the AAS meeting by Dr. Charles Pellerin, NASA's chief astrophysicist.

"We really feel it's a waste to build an instrument to function as well as it did, learn how to operate it, and then to know that nothing more will happen," said Peter J. Serlemitsos, chief scientist for the Broad Band X-Ray Telescope, the sole X-ray instrument aboard.

But Samuel T. Durrance -- the Johns Hopkins astrophysicist who operated the telescopes in space as an astronaut/payload specialist -- said yesterday: "It depends on who you talk to at NASA. I'm not convinced it's a dead issue at this point."

The Hopkins telescope made one of the first reported Astro discoveries -- evidence contradicting a recently advanced theory on the nature of the "missing mass," undiscovered matter that must exist to explain observed gravitational effects in the universe.

Theorists propose that the mass exists as neutrinos, subatomic particles formed at the time of the big-bang creation of the universe. Once thought to have no mass at all, neutrinos may have a tiny mass and leave an ultraviolet signature as they decay in space. The Hopkins telescope searched for that signature, but no trace was found. "It doesn't disprove the theory," Dr. Davidsen said. "But if neutrinos have mass and are decaying, they're not doing it as predicted."

The only camera aboard -- the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope, built at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt -- provided three color images released yesterday, the first of 900 frames shot of 68 celestial objects. The photos revealed great ultraviolet detail of so-called "starburst knots," where new stars are forming in the wispy spirals of galaxy M81 and a striking view of hot stars in the Omega Centauri globular cluster about 17,000 light-years away.

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