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Months After NASA Decision, Hubble Debate Still Simmers

BY Larisa Epatko  March 30, 2004 at 5:45 PM EDT

Ideas on how to prolong Hubble’s life, such as bringing the telescope into the same orbit as the International Space Station to facilitate its servicing, continue to pour into the message boards on NASA’s Hubble Web site.

Lawmakers last week introduced resolutions in the House and Senate recognizing the contributions Hubble has made — including providing proof of black holes and helping measure the age of the universe — and urging NASA to rethink its decision.

At the UK National Astronomy Meeting on Tuesday, professor Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester said astronomers are concerned they will lose access to clear images of celestial objects in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, a range only the Hubble telescope can detect.

“When Hubble finally fails, access to one of the most important parts of the spectrum will end for the foreseeable future,” he said, according to the BBC.

He floated the idea of an international consortium of astronomers building a “World Space Observatory” that would be able to make even more sensitive ultraviolet observations than the Hubble. Spreading the cost among numerous countries would enable its construction in the next five years, he added.

Hubble, which was last serviced two years ago, is expected to remain operational until about 2007, said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which handles Hubble data.

Beckwith said he is “only a little surprised” the prospect of Hubble’s demise continues to generate debate. “It’s a beloved observatory. For many people, Hubble represents NASA. That’s what they know about it.”

Sean O’Keefe, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in an editorial published Sunday in the Dallas Morning News that the continued public debate shows how passionately people feel about the Hubble.

He described how the loss of the shuttle Columbia, which occurred as NASA was preparing for its fifth and final Hubble servicing mission, led to a report from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board emphasizing the need for safety before the shuttles could fly again.

“We know how to service Hubble,” he wrote. “But we also now know that we can’t conduct the servicing the same way we did in the past.”

Another factor is a space initiative calling for the retirement of the space shuttles by 2010. Just before NASA announced its decision to end Hubble’s servicing, President Bush introduced a plan to start developing spacecraft and equipment to send people back to the moon and eventually on to Mars.

The president’s plan calls for the development of a “Crew Exploration Vehicle” to transport people to the International Space Station after the shuttles retire, and then to the moon.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sponsored the Senate resolution seeking to continue Hubble operations, questioned O’Keefe’s decision to cancel Hubble repairs without getting a second opinion.

In response, O’Keefe sought the input of Harold Gehman, who led the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

In a March 5 letter to Mikulski, Gehman said missions to the International Space Station had the advantage of implementing the Columbia board’s safety guidelines over those not going to the ISS.

“I suggest only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved,” he wrote.

O’Keefe’s said in his editorial that Hubble engineers are exploring the option of sending a robotic mission to prolong Hubble’s life at least to the end of the decade. “We will extend Hubble’s life by drawing on its battery power more judiciously. That will require the scientific community to operate the instrument conservatively — a small inconvenience compared to the human risk of a servicing mission,” he said.

NASA already has begun work on the next generation of space-based telescopes, starting with the James Webb Space Telescope, which will capture images of the universe in the infrared portion of the spectrum with instruments more powerful than Hubble.

The launch of Webb is planned for 2011.