Panel stresses importance of Hubble repair

Group of 20 scientists says don't rule out robot mission, astronaut visit

July 14, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Calling the Hubble Space Telescope "the most important telescope in history," a blue-ribbon panel says NASA should consider all options for keeping the instrument operational - including a repair run by shuttle astronauts, if necessary.

The recommendations, contained in a National Academy of Sciences report leaked to the media yesterday, come as NASA is struggling to decide whether to send a human or robotic mission to rescue the telescope.

In the wake of the Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts in February 2003, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe canceled a final scheduled servicing trip by shuttle astronauts to install new instruments and replace failing batteries and gyroscopes.

But his January decision sparked widespread criticism by scientists, politicians and the public. Without a tuneup, engineers estimate that the telescope - which transmitted spectacular images back to Earth and rewrote the scientific history of the universe - could suffer a crippling mechanical failure as soon as 2008.

The 20-member scientific panel was formed in April, at O'Keefe's request, to weigh the merits of sending a robot or an astronaut crew to the aging Hubble.

The panel, whose ranks include two Nobel laureates and three former astronauts, said yesterday that the space agency should continue to explore a robotic mission - but at the same time "should take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope."

"I find it enormously encouraging," Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said yesterday after learning of the panel's recommendations. "This gives us two options. Hubble should not be abandoned just to sputter away in space."

Scientists at the Homewood-based Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees Hubble research, were also encouraged.

"I could not have hoped for anything more definitive," said director Steven Beckwith. "I think the report makes it fairly clear they believe a shuttle servicing is a viable option."

In a statement responding to the panel's report, O'Keefe said yesterday that the space agency was "committed to exploring ways to safely extend the useful scientific life of Hubble."

Keeping options open

While not directly addressing the possibility of a manned mission, he said the agency would continue to explore "innovative" ways to keep the aging telescope in orbit. "We'll keep options open to assure the best possible outcome," O'Keefe said.

NASA has already received more than two dozen robotic rescue plans from universities, private companies, and NASA centers. (The University of Maryland, which initially explored a robot design, has decided to drop out, officials there said yesterday.)

The deadline for submitting proposals is Friday. NASA officials said yesterday that they would make a decision on whether to move forward with a robotic mission in August. Contracts to build the robots would have to be awarded by year's end.

Shuttle astronauts have conducted four successful repair missions since the telescope was launched in 1990. In addition to replacing aging parts, the final repair mission was scheduled to install two new multimillion-dollar instruments, the Wide Field Camera-3 and Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, that promised even more stellar discoveries.

O'Keefe originally said his decision to scrub the shuttle's Hubble mission was based, in part, on the safety recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Among the suggested safety protocols were the capability of inspecting the shuttle exterior for damage - such as the damaged wing tiles that caused Columbia's demise - and evacuation of the shuttle if necessary. Missions to the International Space Station meet both safety requirements. Trips to the Hubble, isolated 350 miles above Earth, presumably would not.

But in its report yesterday, the National Academies panel concluded that sending astronauts to Hubble "is not precluded by or inconsistent with" the accident board's recommendations.

Previous successes

The panel also noted that previous shuttle repair missions have been "highly successful." It concluded that a robotic servicing mission would be "highly complex" and expressed concern that NASA has had too little time "to evaluate and understand the technical and schedule limitations of robotic servicing."

Yesterday's interim recommendations are expected to be followed by a more comprehensive final report in the late summer or early fall.

The full text of the NASA Hubble report is available online at www.baltimoresun.com/hubblereport.

Sun staff writer Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.

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