Robots to the rescue for the ailing Hubble?

Space: A team at the University of Maryland, College Park has developed a robot called Ranger that could help extend the life of the imperiled orbiting telescope.

May 01, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - With top NASA officials unwilling to risk astronauts' lives to service the Hubble Space Telescope, and with the clock ticking toward the moment when fading batteries or failed gyroscopes are likely to cripple it, perhaps only a miracle can save the revered observatory.

Or a robot.

Enter David L. Akin, a robotics engineer and director of the Space Systems Laboratory at the University of Maryland.

Almost unnoticed, Akin and his team at College Park have spent 14 years - and $14 million of NASA's money - developing a robot called Ranger to repair and upgrade orbiting satellites, particularly Hubble.

Ranger is one of several systems that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is studying before proposing a possible robotic rescue for Hubble. NASA administator Sean O'Keefe is expected to make a final decision by September.

"We're positioning ourselves to be able to do it," said Mike Moore, Hubble program executive at NASA headquarters. "We're all very hopeful and excited we can actually do this."

Ranger has never flown in space. But early last month, Akin described a hypothetical Ranger rescue mission to NASA officials at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. A space-certified Ranger is 70 percent built, he told them. It's in storage and ready for final tests and assembly.

"We basically said we'll not only fly all the hardware, but we'll put it all in the same places the astronauts were going to put it," he said. "We think we can make it work."

Twenty-six other government, industrial and academic organizations have also described their robotic technologies to NASA.

With O'Keefe on the record as opposing a manned service mission to Hubble - and scientists predicting that the telescope will fail as early as 2007 without repairs -the agency is scrambling to develop alternatives for extending Hubble's scientific usefulness.

Astronauts on the canceled servicing mission, referred to as SM4, were scheduled to replace batteries and gyros to keep the telescope alive until at least 2010. They were also supposed to install scientific instruments to expand Hubble's view of the cosmos.

Strict safety standards

O'Keefe said his decision was unavoidable, given the strict flight-safety standards set since the shuttle Columbia accident last year and the demands on the shuttle program for completing the International Space Station.

Astronomers, politicians and ordinary citizens - who had been mesmerized for years by Hubble's spectacular images of the universe - rose in protest. In response, NASA asked the National Academy of Sciences to review options for saving the telescope.

The Hubble assessment committee named by the academy could recommend that the manned SM4 mission to Hubble be revived, Moore said. But "from my point of view," he said, "unless we have a new administrator, that isn't going to happen."

The panel members were asked to consider other solutions, including engineering adjustments by ground controllers that could squeeze more work out of the telescope or servicing by a remote-controlled robot.

Scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore are working to devise new ways to keep Hubble operating for as long as possible if no rescue attempt is made.

But the astronomers there love the idea of a robot.

"If they service it with aliens, it doesn't matter to me. I just want to see Hubble continue," said the institute's director, Steven V.W. Beckwith.

Beyond the obvious gains for space science, a successful robotic repair and upgrade would offer enormous promise for the future, he said.

"If they can make this thing work, we could service Hubble over long periods, and we wouldn't be limited anymore by the short shuttle flights," Beckwith said. "The whole history of human evolution has been to invent tools to do what was risky for people to do. This is a natural evolution. ... I think it's very exciting."

Proven space robotics would also be useful in the lunar and Mars exploration missions proposed by President Bush.

NASA engineers have always known that they would have to send some sort of unmanned vehicle back to Hubble, Moore said. The telescope has no propulsion, and without something to nudge it into a safe re-entry over an empty ocean, the bus-sized telescope could make a risky, uncontrolled fall to Earth as early as 2013.

In February, Moore said, O'Keefe challenged his program managers to find a way to tackle the re-entry problem. He also wanted them to find a way to accomplish some of the tasks planned for SM4, Moore said, "but in a way that wouldn't involve risking human life."

NASA's initial in-house discussions were promising. "We've convinced ourselves the idea is worth pursuing," Moore said. But they needed to reach out and review the state of the art in robotics, including the University of Maryland's Ranger system.

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