Scientists mourn early demise of Hubble

Research instruments built for space telescope will remain Earth-bound

January 21, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien | Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

At the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the messages of sympathy have been pouring in for days.

No one has died, exactly. But NASA's decision last week to cancel the fifth and final space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope has doomed the revered orbiting observatory to an early demise.

And that has triggered real grief among astronomers stricken by the loss of future scientific discoveries, the derailing of their scientific quests and perhaps their jobs.

"We have people who are emotionally all over the place," said John MacKenty, 46, the institute's group leader for one of two new Hubble instruments grounded by the decision. "I don't even know how to face some of these people."

Worse, those two instruments - the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) - have already been built at a cost of $167 million. They're stranded on the ground, and no knows whether there's some other way to make use of them.

"But you can bet we're thinking about it," said Tony Keyes, the institute's COS group leader.

Keyes and hundreds of others at the institute, at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville and in contractors' shops across the country who had a stake in the mission are still waiting for word on the fate of their assignments - or their jobs.

On Friday, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced the cancellation of the 2006 servicing mission, the fifth and last planned before Hubble's scheduled retirement in 2010.

One reason was the Bush administration's new focus on sending men back to the moon and then on to Mars. The other was a new set of safety rules established after last February's Columbia breakup. They would limit future shuttle missions to the completion of the International Space Station.

Hubble is still working well, and new requests for observations are still being processed. But without the servicing mission planned for 2006, key hardware is likely to fail by the end of 2007.

The most vulnerable are the telescope's six gyroscopes, which are critical for pointing the instrument. Three are needed for reliable operation, and three are spares. But two of those aboard Hubble now have failed, leaving the telescope just two gyro failures from a breakdown.

Gyroscopes fail regularly in the harsh environment of space. All six of Hubble's original gyros were replaced in 1993, and two of the new ones were replaced in 1997. By 1999, four had broken down, putting the telescope out of service for a month until astronauts could be sent up to replace them all.

Hubble's demise would leave a large hole in astronomers' tool kit until NASA's next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is launched. But that won't be until at least 2011.

"The tragedy is that the Hubble Space Telescope is better now than it ever was before," said astronomer Tom Brown, 34, instrument scientist for the now-grounded Wide Field Camera 3. "It's like shooting a prize-winning thoroughbred when it's about to win the Triple Crown."

Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget, called the decision to scrap the 2005 servicing mission "shocking and surprising."

"Hubble is too important to science, to discovery and to jobs not to get a second or even third opinion," she said. "I want to hear from the best scientists and the astronauts themselves."

Scientists say they're not the right people to ask. "Our desire to use it is going to color any opinions we have," said Keyes.

Both the spectrograph and the wide field camera were built by Ball Aerospace Technology Corp., based in Boulder, Colo., for $80 million and $87 million, respectively. The camera is at Goddard, six to eight months short of delivery. The spectrograph is at Ball in Colorado, but it is ready to fly.

For now, no one has been dismissed or reassigned, and final testing of the two instruments continues. Scientists and engineers are being careful not to stop work or make any quick decisions that might ruin the investment. "These are not simple machines," MacKenty said.

NASA developed the Wide Field Camera 3 to yield a 10-fold improvement in Hubble's ability to observe broad expanses of the sky in ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths. That's important for large and distant objects such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as well as closer things such as planets within our solar system.

"It was meant to make a lot of people happy," MacKenty said.

For example, its beefed-up power in the infrared spectrum would have extended Hubble's reach 95 percent of the way back to the Big Bang - "much farther back than anyone has seen so far," MacKenty said.

It could have revealed light that began its journey toward Earth when the first stars and galaxies were born, unveiling fainter clues to the early evolution of stars and galaxies.

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