Image: Hubble Space Telescope
NASA via AP file
"We're in the mode of pursuing every wacky concept out there" to keep Hubble alive, said the director of the institute that operates Hubble for NASA.
By Senior Science Writer
updated 1/21/2004 4:54:57 PM ET 2004-01-21T21:54:57

Hubble Space Telescope operators plan to ask Russia for help in keeping the observatory alive and will even consider accepting private donations, which have already been offered.

Every idea under the sun will be considered for keeping the popular and scientifically valuable observatory operating even though NASA has decided to let it die.

"We're in the mode of pursuing every wacky concept out there," said Steven Beckwith, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates Hubble for NASA.

The stakes are high.

Citing safety concerns, NASA declared Friday it would not go forward with a planned servicing mission in 2006, in which astronauts would repair defective pointing gyroscopes and install two new and powerful instruments on Hubble. The decision came two days after President Bush's call for NASA to refocus on human spaceflight with an eye toward returning to the Moon.

Without a servicing mission, Hubble has a life expectancy of, at most, 3-1/2 years if some creative solutions can be employed, Beckwith said today in a telephone interview.

No replacement
There is no other telescope in existence, or any slated to go online in the next decade, that can replace Hubble's optical view of the universe.

"You miss what the human eye can see," Beckwith said. "You miss all the visible." He likened the astronomers' expected plight to a soldier on the battlefield having to rely on night vision goggles.

Ground-based optical observatories struggle to overcome the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere. At times, they achieve or exceed Hubble's capabilities, but only in narrow, very limited bands of the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, the scientists' term for light.

NASA's new Spitzer Space Telescope views the universe in the infrared, akin to night-vision goggles, as will the planned James Webb Space Telescope, tentatively slated for launch in 2011. Even if Webb goes up — and that is not certain yet — it won't see visible light.

Meanwhile, the two new Hubble instruments are already built. The Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph cost a combined $167 million and would have provided unprecedented peeks into the formation of the cosmos, astronomers say. The camera is nearly ready at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the spectrograph, which splits and analyzes light, is ready and waiting at Ball Aerospace Technology Corp. in Boulder, Colo.

They would have made Hubble 10 times more capable of examining the early universe, making Hubble's final years "the best ever," Beckwith said. "If you liked Hubble up to now you would have loved it after Servicing Mission 4."

No one knows what will become of the two instruments, but it is unlikely they could be adapted for use on any other telescope.

All options considered
Beckwith said there is no precedent in the history of astronomy for removing a telescope from operation before a better one is online. A classic example: A 100-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson, in California, was built in 1917. It was still in operation in 1948 when the 200-inch Palomar Observatory was opened, also in California.

Both are still in use.

"I've had a lot of e-mail from people who want to donate money to help keep Hubble alive," Beckwith said. He and his team will consider the feasibility of accepting donations but he said "billionaires might be needed."

NASA still plans a robotic mission to attach a device to Hubble that would safely deorbit and destroy it. STScI engineers will consider whether a similar robotic effort might instead service the observatory. "We don't know if that's technologically feasible," Beckwith said.

There might also be discussions with the European Space Agency (ESA), which partnered with NASA to fund the original development of Hubble. Beckwith said, though, that talks have likely already taken place at a high level between NASA and ESA and he's not sure "how much leeway we'll have."

Others have suggested that the Russians might be willing to send a manned mission to upgrade and service Hubble.

"The Russians probably have the capability to do it," Beckwith said, and he plans to pursue the possibility. "It's not necessarily politically likely, but it shows that we're going to take all ideas and put them on the table."

Survival mode
Hubble has six gyroscopes onboard used for pointing the telescope. They fail regularly — several have been replaced during previous servicing missions — and only four are operating now.

Meanwhile, mission planners and engineers at the STScI, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, will soon have a new set of tasks.

Beckwith will ask his employees to present options for possibly servicing Hubble or extend its life without servicing. They might cycle power off during certain portions of the observatory's orbit to conserve batteries. Or they might immediately turn off one of the four working gyros to maximize its lifetime.

Not dead yet
Whatever happens, Hubble is still a working observatory for the moment.

Beckwith will set up a committee of astronomers from inside the STScI and outside, in the general astronomy community, to advise him on a short-list of observations that should be done under the assumption that time is running out. That effort would be a "political process" involving hundreds of astronomers who regularly stand in line hoping to get approval for their proposed observation sessions on the telescope.

No one in astronomy questions the value of Hubble. Astronaut and astrophysicist John Grunsfeld, now NASA's chief scientist, flew into space and worked on Hubble during the last mission. "This is a hard one," he said of the decision to let the telescope go.

"We all feel it as a devastating blow," said Catherine Pilachowski, president of the 6,000-member American Astronomical Society.

Perhaps the most telling measure of Hubble's success comes by comparison. Operators of other telescope often make the claim, and rightfully so, that they've observed a distant object with resolution comparable to or exceeding that of Hubble. They do so on a limited basis in a narrow bandwidth, but they do it. And they are proud to point it out. Their desire to match what Hubble does so easily on a regular basis is always apparent.

"We enjoy being the gold standard," Beckwith said with some determination today, "and we will remain so."

The STScI will set up a Web site within a week or so to take suggestions from the public and to communicate the status of the effort to save Hubble.

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