Hubble image of dwarf galaxy NGC 1569
Esa  /  NASA / Gottingen U.
Hubble's view of the dwarf galaxy NGC 1569 shows bubble-like structures and clusters of starbirth.
By Senior science writer
updated 2/4/2004 4:07:41 PM ET 2004-02-04T21:07:41

NASA is standing firm on its decision not to service the Hubble Space Telescope, but the agency would not ignore offers from other parties to extend the observatory's life providing someone else footed the bill and took responsibility for mission safety.

In a conference call with reporters today, the Associate Administrator for the NASA’s Office of Space Science, Ed Weiler, said he does not see anyone lining up to make such an offer, however.

Weiler also said that contrary to press reports, no serious layoffs of Hubble staff are planned. The agency's 2005 budget request includes money for continued operation of the telescope for the next few years, he said.

NASA announced in mid-January that Servicing Mission 4, slated for 2006, was cancelled because it could not reasonably meet new safety requirements set out by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).

Astronomers and even a senator called on NASA to reconsider. Despite NASA's insistence that the decision was entirely safety based, some saw it as the first casualty of the White House's new vision for expanded human spaceflight.

NASA chief Sean O'Keefe has since asked Retired U.S. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, the chairman of the now disbanded CAIB, to evaluate the concerns and report back to him.

While from a science standpoint Weiler said today he would choose to keep Hubble going, he understands the safety-based decision not to send astronauts to work on the aging observatory.

Asked if NASA would consider an offer from someone to fund a servicing mission and take responsibility for safety, Weiler said, "I'm sure that NASA would listen to them." But he added: "I don't see anybody stepping up with a billion dollars."

Possible options
Weiler said Hubble could remain operational at least through 2007 "and maybe 2008" if engineers are successful at conserving its batteries and figuring out how to point the telescope with two gyroscopes instead of three, as is now required.

Hubble currently has four working gyroscopes out of six. Several have been replaced in previous missions, the last time in 1999, and those still working will eventually fail.

Hubble is operated for NASA by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. STScI Director Steven Beckwith recently said he would consider all ways to keep Hubble going beyond its expected lifetime.

NASA, however, would have to approve any change in plans for Hubble.

"We have not pursued any avenues of asking for outside help," Beckwith said today. "We for the moment are working on ways to extend the lifetime of Hubble, working with NASA."

Beckwith made it clear that "we are not soliciting offers. When people make offers, we listen."

Hundreds of public pleas to keep the venerable observatory alive have rolled in to the STScI. Among the suggestions are asking the Russians to service the telescope. Others have asked if Hubble could be moved to the International Space Station.

"That ignores the laws of physics," Weiler said. Hubble is simply too heavy and in the wrong orbit to be maneuvered in that manner.

Others have suggested a robot might service Hubble. Weiler noted that astronauts have done "impossible things" to make previous servicing missions successful. "I frankly don't see how a robot could do the things an astronaut has to do," such as "closing doors that don't want to close."

Weiler, a scientist himself, is sympathetic with astronomers who bemoan O'Keefe's decision to let Hubble's mission wind down.

"Based on the science, we should do a Servicing Mission 4," Weiler said. "No question. Trouble is, there's more than science to be involved here." He cited astronaut safety in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster.

"I understand the things [O'Keefe] had to look at," Weiler said. "If I were in his position, I would have made exactly the same decision."

Fears of layoffs
Weiler also allayed fears that the decision not to service Hubble would lead to immediate layoffs. President Bush's 2005 budget request leaves Hubble's operational budget intact.

Funding for daily operation of the telescope "has been untouched," Weiler said. The work force at NASA and the STScI will, however, be shifted to work on life-extension plans. "There are no massive layoffs planned" through 2005, he said.

Hubble's HitsUltimately NASA must launch a robotic probe to capture and deorbit Hubble into the Pacific Ocean, a plan that has been in place since the telescope launched. It is too big to allow it to crash to Earth uncontrolled and risk hitting a populated area.

Weiler said some of the technology needed to carry that mission out still needs to be developed.

But there is no rush. Regardless of when Hubble stops being scientifically useful, it will remain safely in orbit until at least 2013, he said. The new budget allows $300 million over the next five years to plan for the deorbiting project. NASA has not decided in which year it will carry that mission out.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to a replacement for Hubble gained support in the new budget.

The James Web Space Telescope (JWST) is slated for launch in 2011. The infrared observatory will be powerful, but it will not record visible light, as does Hubble. Many astronomers have expressed a desire to keep Hubble going until 2011. And since JWST's development funding has not been entirely solid, they were also concerned its launch could be pushed back to 2012.

The JWST launch date is now "realistic" based on the new budget, Weiler said.

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