WASHINGTON - Supporters of the Hubble Space Telescope asked NASA yesterday to extend its life for three years beyond the shutdown date of 2010 - at a cost of at least $150 million a year.
Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, which operates the instrument, told a National Aeronautics and Space Administration panel the money will ensure that Hubble continues to capture pictures that help scientists unravel mysteries about the origin and nature of the universe.
"It's up there, it works well and it's pretty easy to service it," Beckwith told a group of astronomers and planetary scientists appointed to look into Hubble's future.
But there was far from unanimous agreement on extending Hubble's life.
Andrew Gould, an astronomer at Ohio State University, said pumping more money into Hubble may drain funding from other priorities - including the $1 billion Space Interometry Mission planned for launch in 2010. The mission, overseen by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is expected to produce ground-breaking discoveries in how planets, stars and galaxies move through the heavens, he said.
"In and of itself, it'd be great to extend Hubble. But there are a number of other missions to consider and if they have to be cannibalized, it wouldn't be worth it," Gould said.
Praise for Hubble
Since its launch in 1990 and the correction of a flawed mirror, the Hubble has won widespread praise - from astronomers and laymen alike - for the astonishing quality of its photographs of distant celestial objects. Hubble has been a key tool for scientists mapping the dynamics of galaxies. It has helped them discover hundreds of planets, charted weather patterns on Mars and recently made headlines by finding evidence of a 13 billion-year-old planet, the oldest yet discovered.
But Hubble's days were always numbered. Launched in 1990, it was supposed to be put out of commission by 2005. NASA later extended its life to 2010.
NASA officials still plan to replace the Hubble with the $1.6 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated for launch in August 2011.
But after the space shuttle Columbia disaster Feb. 1, Congress asked NASA to look into extending Hubble's life as part of an order to re-evaluate the safety of manned space flight.
The meeting of the NASA panel yesterday was part of that process. The five-member group is charged with making recommendations on Hubble's future.
"We have a plan, we think it is a good plan, but now we've been asked to see if there are other alternatives worth exploring," said Anne L. Kinney, director of astronomy and physics in NASA's Office of Space Science.
Kinney said extending Hubble's life would require an additional shuttle mission to the telescope - along with the one planned for next year. Each shuttle mission costs $600 million. NASA estimates the total cost for extending the telescope's life at $700 million.
But Beckwith argued that estimates should not include the cost of a space shuttle flight because the shuttle will make that $600 million flight whether Hubble's life is extended or not. "It's not like that money's saved if it isn't spent on Hubble," he said.
He said Hubble has accounted for 33 percent of the discoveries announced by NASA, spawning record-breaking research and photos that have become staples in science classrooms. But he noted that it accounts for only 2 percent of the space agency's $15 billion budget.
"Hubble's become a national icon - it's become the face of NASA," Beckwith said in an interview.
Advocates for extending Hubble's life yesterday included Riccardo Giacconi, a former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute who shared the Nobel Prize in physics last year for developing an X-ray telescope that provides new kinds of images of the universe.
"Hubble has had enormous benefits," Giacconi told the panel. "We should try to make the very best use of what we put up there, because every time we launch, it's a miracle."
Kinney, who appointed the six-member panel, acknowledged widespread support among scientists for extending Hubble's life, but said NASA has to set priorities for its funds.
"The community would like to have everything, but it's not an entitlement program," she said.
The panel's report is due Oct. 1. Members say they'll weigh the costs of continued operation against scientific priorities.
"There's things that Hubble can't do that scientists want to get done," said Jacqueline Hewitt, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the panel.
Looking to the future
John Mather of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who oversees the Webb telescope project, told the group that Webb will capture images far beyond Hubble's reach because it will be deeper in space.
While the Hubble's orbit is 350 miles up, the Webb telescope will be stationed in much darker and more distant regions, up to four times as far as the moon. That's as distant as the telescope can be and still transmit images, Mather said.
The Webb telescope, he said, "goes far beyond whatever capabilities other telescopes could ever do, and the main reason is, it's dark up there.
Still unresolved is how NASA intends to bring the Hubble down. Before the Columbia disaster, NASA wanted the shuttle to bring it back to Earth in one piece for public display, most likely at the National Air and Space Museum. But plans for the "de-orbit" were thrown into doubt after the Columbia disaster.
David Stevenson, a scientist at the Marshall Space Flight Center, has been leading a team of engineers exploring the possible use of an expendable vehicle to nudge the Hubble out of orbit and bring it down in an unpopulated area of the Pacific Ocean.