Hubble rescue bid is planned

NASA chief gives a `go' to develop robot mission

August 10, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told cheering scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center yesterday to begin planning a robotic mission to save the popular Hubble Space Telescope.

O'Keefe authorized NASA crews at Goddard, which controls the space telescope's operations, to find a way to repair the telescope and install two new instruments - a sophisticated camera and a spectrograph - that had been scheduled for delivery in a 2006 space shuttle servicing mission that was canceled in January.

He estimated the cost at $1 billion to $1.6 billion.

"Everybody's delighted," said Bruce Woodgate, a NASA scientist at Goddard who was at the meeting yesterday afternoon.

The audience of about 200 engineers, astronomers and technicians greeted O'Keefe's surprise announcement with several cheers, Woodgate said.

He said that a design review, in which scientists discuss progress made so far and determine the feasibility of the robotic mission, will probably be conducted in six months to a year. But he said such reviews are routine for NASA missions.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on the future of the Hubble Space Telescope in Tuesday's editions incorrectly reported that NASA was reviewing 25 proposals for a robotic mission to service the instruments. Although 25 robotic mission "concepts" were reviewed this spring, a spokesman said that to comply with federal procurement regulations, NASA has never released the number of formal Hubble repair proposals that were subsequently submitted in July. The Sun regrets the error.

"This is as much of a green light as you can expect at this stage," Woodgate said. "He [O'Keefe] said he wasn't going to rule anything out."

Scientists at Goddard will search for the best option from a variety of proposals submitted to NASA in recent weeks. In addition to installing new equipment, the robot mission would have to repair Hubble's aging batteries and the gyroscopes that keep the telescope precisely trained on very tiny areas.

Even with yesterday's tentative go-ahead, a servicing mission is still at least three years away, said Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which works with Goddard in controlling Hubble's scientific operations.

But it should guarantee that the 14-year-old telescope continues to beam back images of distant galaxies until at least 2010. Hubble's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, isn't scheduled to be launched until at least 2011.

"It's great news. It means he's committed to going for it," Beckwith said of O'Keefe.

In January, O'Keefe canceled a final scheduled servicing trip by shuttle astronauts to install new instruments and replace failing batteries and gyroscopes.

At the time, O'Keefe cited safety concerns raised by a panel investigating the Columbia breakup, which recommended that future missions give astronauts an escape route in case of damage to the spacecraft.

But the decision to cancel the final servicing mission sparked protests from Hubble's scientific and political backers. They included Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, as well as students and others enthralled by the spectacular images Hubble had beamed back to Earth from the edges of the universe over the years.

Without a tuneup, engineers estimated that the telescope - which has helped to rewrote the scientific history of the universe - could suffer a crippling mechanical failure as soon as 2008.

Critics pointed out that two instruments due to be installed in the final servicing mission - the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) - have already been built at a cost of $167 million.

Eventually, O'Keefe agreed to an independent scientific review. That review - completed last month by the National Academy of Sciences - called the Hubble "the most important telescope in history" and recommended that NASA consider all its options for keeping the instrument operational - including a repair run by shuttle astronauts, if necessary.

The panel, whose ranks include two Nobel laureates and three former astronauts, also recommended the space agency explore the possibility of a robotic mission - but at the same time it "should take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle servicing mission."

Beckwith said O'Keefe's announcement yesterday doesn't rule out using a space shuttle to service the Hubble if it turns out that a robotic mission is not feasible. But he said the decision ends months of speculation about whether Hubble's life will be extended to at least 2010.

"This is what we've waited for, this is what we hoped for," Beckwith said.

NASA is reviewing about 25 proposals from government, industrial and academic organizations describing their robotic technologies.

They include a $14 million robot called Ranger, designed to repair and upgrade orbiting satellites, that is being built by the Space Systems Laboratory at the University of Maryland.

NASA engineers have long suspected that they would have to send some sort of unmanned vehicle back to Hubble 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.

The telescope also is beginning to show its age.

Last week, a power supply failure blinded a key instrument that provided about 30 percent of the aging telescope's observations, scientists said yesterday.

The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) was one of four primary instruments in the Hubble's observation package but was not scheduled for replacement once it failed.

It was already two years beyond its expected life.

Hubble's three other instruments - the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 - are all operating normally.

The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this article.

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