A glimmer of hope for Hubble

April 23, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

When the workweek ends at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, astronomers relax at an event known as the "Director's Sherry." There, in the Lyman Spitzer Board Room - a plain space that looks more like a university classroom than an executive lair - some of the field's most fortunate insiders share a beer, a glass of wine or a Coke and trade gossip about yet another fine week in science.

The bright minds behind an instrument that has been called "the greatest eye in the universe," the Hubble Space Telescope, have grown accustomed to sharing good news at the genial Friday cocktail hour. By 5 o'clock, one is likely to find, pouring a soda or sipping a brew, one STScI scientist or another on the verge of a big announcement: an unveiling of the deepest telescopic view of the universe; the latest measurements of a mysterious anti-gravity force; a new discovery of what transpired a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

But the usual buoyant mood here changed in January, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that it had canceled a scheduled servicing mission for the Hubble. On SM4 (Servicing Mission Four), astronauts aboard a space shuttle would have installed fresh batteries and new instruments, extending Hubble's life well beyond 2010 and advancing the telescope's vision an unheard-of number of light years. Instead, just as astronomers believed Hubble science was entering its prime, they were being told that the telescope could be called out of service as early as 2006.

Since then, the Friday happy hour has been anything but.

In fact, from week to week this winter, Hubble's astronomy, on occasion, has seemed doomed. The Director's Sherry has been fraught with fear of the most unpredictable of non-astronomical whims - ordinary politics.

"We've been scared," said astronomer Massimo Robberto.

"Disappointed," said his colleague Anton Koekemoer. "Definitely disappointed."

Despite an outstanding streak of headline news from Hubble-based science since January and an overwhelming public outcry to save the Hubble, NASA chief Sean O'Keefe has stubbornly stood his ground. A service mission by astronauts would be far too risky, he claims. Hubble's new camera, gyroscopes and replacement batteries may just be waiting for a lift into low Earth orbit, but O'Keefe's determined desire to avoid another Columbia disaster means there is no longer a mission to ride.

But then, just last Friday, something happened. Rumors, then news, filtered into the institute. While astronomers worked at their computers, a few of the institute's higher-ups put in some discrete phone calls.

A little after 4 p.m., the usual weekly assortment of beverages arrived at the Spitzer room. Although the Director's Sherry (started by Nobel Laureate Riccardo Giacconi, the institute's first director) no longer includes sherry, Hubble astronomers do occasionally descend from a week in rare atmospheres to crack open a Sam Adams, a bottle of wine or a can of cold cola. The drinks were waiting. And since astronomers also tend to unwind by talking astronomy, the Spitzer room was equipped with plenty of markers in case someone wanted to argue out a few new calculations on the white boards.

Mario Livio was one of the first to arrive. As past director of STScI's science division, Livio usually had a bead on things outside the institute. Someone wondered aloud if Hubble's fortunes had started to shift that week.

"Well, in the last hour, actually," Livio said. "Members of the National Academy committee have been announced."

Last month, bowing to political pressures, NASA agreed to solicit an opinion on Hubble from the National Academy of Sciences. A few select members would conduct a thorough risks/benefits analysis of a servicing mission and make recommendations. O'Keefe had agreed to consider their input but stressed that he was unlikely to change his mind.

"This is a pretty high-powered committee," Livio said.

Well, someone asked, what were the names?

To begin, he said, Riccardo Giacconi.

Eyebrows lifted.

Yes, that Giacconi - the former director for whom the weekly Director's Sherry was named.

Also, Princeton University's Joe Taylor and Sandy Faber of the University of California at Santa Cruz - both Hubble supporters and enormously successful astronomers.

You could see smiles breaking out around the room.

And Greg Harbaugh, a former NASA astronaut who performed repairs on Hubble in 1997. Harbaugh recently was quoted saying that pulling the plug on Hubble would be "a huge, huge mistake."

"So we have some friends," said Robberto.

"We will really be fortunate if we get the servicing mission back," Livio said. "But this is good."

You could hear soda cans fizzing open, ice tumbling, scientists chattering. The room began to fill with more news.

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