Baltimore institute to open new eye on the universe NASA asks operators of Hubble to handle replacement telescope

June 09, 1998|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute will serve as the earthbound observatory for the Next Generation Space Telescope, NASA's chief said yesterday, preserving hundreds of high-paying jobs and insuring that the city will remain one of the planet's most important windows on the universe.

The NGST, expected to replace the Hubble Space Telescope early in the new century, will extend the limits of the visible universe from about 7 billion light-years to 12 billion light-years, into a region astronomers call the "Dark Zone."

That should give Earth its first glimpse of galaxies as they started to form between about 100 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

"We believe it will go to the very edge of what was the original creation," said NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, speaking to cheering staffers in the institute's auditorium. The research center, with an annual budget of $48 million, employs 470 people, including 143 Ph.D. astronomers and scientists.

The new telescope should accelerate the study of star formation, aid in the search for Earth-like planets circling other stars and advance one of NASA's chief goals, the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of NASA's budget, showed up to applaud the announcement.

"I'm so glad to be here this morning with the genius club," she said, drawing laughs.

Located across from the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, the institute was established in 1981 as the center for Hubble research. Soon after Hubble reached orbit in April 1990, astronomers discovered that its 94.5-inch primary mirror was misshapen.

Engineers at the Baltimore institute devised computer programs correct some of Hubble's blurred images, salvaging some of the project's early scientific goals. Later, institute scientists and engineers designed a package of corrective optics, a kind of contact lens for the myopic Hubble. Astronauts successfully installed that package in 1993, in what was widely hailed as a triumph for the space agency.

Proven in crisis

Officials said the Space Telescope Science Institute's handling of the Hubble crisis proved it could handle the NGST.

"We looked through the microscope to decide who would operate this telescope," Goldin said. During a !* question-and-answer session after the announcement, Goldin declined to say what other institutions, if any, were in the running.

Since its fix, Hubble has made a series of breathtaking pictures and solid scientific discoveries, including a recent glimpse of the first planet outside our solar system.

While preliminary work on the Next Generation Space Telescope has already begun, formal design work is not scheduled to start until 2003. The telescope is expected to reach its post in deep space -- a solar orbit about 1 million miles from Earth -- in 2007.

Using new materials and telescope technology, the NGST is expected to cost between $500 million and $1 billion, compared with Hubble's development costs of $1.5 billion. It is expected to weigh no more than about a tenth of what Hubble does, with a wafer- thin mirror about 10 times larger than Hubble's, overall.

Unique mirror

The secret of its low weight and cost will be the mirror, which is likely to come folded like an umbrella, or stacked in segments, and will be flexible rather than rigid.

Once the telescope is in space, tiny motors behind the mirror will move it into the precise shape needed to focus incoming light.

Hubble operates 380 miles above the Earth's surface, just outside the planet's atmosphere. The low orbit means it can be serviced by the space shuttle, but it means that Earth passes between the telescope and its target about half the time.

The Next Generation Space Telescope will sit far beyond the moon and so will not have to perform Hubble's orbital calisthenics. Neither will anyone be able to go up and fix it, though, if something goes wrong.

While Hubble was assembled at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., NGST assembly will occur at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Mikulski said.

Goddard controls Hubble's flight operations, while the institute plans and coordinates Hubble's observations.

One institute scientist said NASA is considering handing operational control of the NGST to the Baltimore institute along with scientific control. "We haven't gotten to that stage yet," a spokesman for Goldin said.

Extended mission

Hubble was originally designed to last for 15 years, until 2005. About six months ago, NASA extended its operations through 2010. That assumes the orbiting telescope can operate without any major malfunction for the seven years after its last space shuttle service mission, scheduled for 2003.

Before yesterday's announcement, the long-term future of the institute was unclear. That, officials said, could have made it hard to attract top-notch astronomers and other staffers.

Robert E. Williams, the institute's director, welcomed the news.

Standing in the auditorium, he turned to Mikulski and Goldin and raised his hand in a split-fingered salute familiar to fans of the character Mr. Spock of the "Star Trek" television series.

"May you both live long and prosper," he said.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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