Unused Hubble gear yet may fly

Two costly instruments may hitch ride to space

Part of proposed observatory

Spectrograph, camera were for space telescope

July 30, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Two costly astronomical instruments grounded by NASA's cancellation of further upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope could someday hitch a ride into space as part of a new observatory proposed by an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University.

Colin Norman, a professor of astrophysics at Hopkins and an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, has submitted the idea to NASA for financing under the space agency's Astronomical Search for Origins Program.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said yesterday that the idea was one of nine chosen for eight months of further study before any final funding decision. Two other Maryland proposals also made the cut, one from the space telescope institute in Baltimore, and the other from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

The "Hubble Origins Probe" mission Norman proposes would carry Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3 into space.

Together, NASA said, the paired instruments would "focus on the period when the great majority of star and planet formation, heavy element production, black-hole growth and galaxy assembly took place."

Both instruments are built, at a cost of $167 million. But they were stranded by NASA's decision, after the Columbia shuttle accident, not to risk astronauts' lives on further Hubble servicing trips. The space agency is considering a robotic mission. Without it, the telescope is expected to fail by 2007 as its gyroscopes and batteries wear out.

The Wide Field Camera 3 was designed to yield a 10-fold improvement in Hubble's ability to image large and distant objects such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as well as closer things such as planets within our solar system.

The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph would break down the ultraviolet light streaming from distant light sources, revealing the chemistry and other secrets of the gas and dust the light passed through en route to Earth.

Also among the nine ideas accepted for further study:

A "Baryonic Structure Probe," proposed by Kenneth Sembach of the Space Telescope Science Institute. It would detect and map the web of matter that fed into galaxies during the early evolution of the universe.

A "Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope," proposed by David Leisawitz, at Goddard, for the study of star and planet formation.

The Origins Program seeks to address the fundamental questions: "How did we get here?" and "Are we alone?" NASA received 26 proposals in response to this call for mission concepts.

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