Why we must rescue the hubble telescope

May 1, 2005
As you probably know, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched from the space shuttle in 1990 (yes, 1990!) and has operated quietly and successfully, albeit with the aid of a series of key servicing missions by live astronauts traveling on the space shuttle.

As you probably know, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched from the space shuttle in 1990 (yes, 1990!) and has operated quietly and successfully, albeit with the aid of a series of key servicing missions by live astronauts traveling on the space shuttle. These missions replaced nearly all the HST’s major components except the original telescope mirrors and the support structure. Everything was on track to replace aging batteries, guidance sensors, and gyro­scopes and install two new science instruments on the HST. These modifications and replacements would have extended the useful life of the HST well into the next decade and even beyond.

Then, following the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew in February 2003, NASA suspended all shuttle flights. In mid-January of 2004, NASA decided not to pursue the fifth HST manned servicing mission (SM-4) on the grounds of unacceptable potential risk to the shuttle’s crew. The HST will most likely stop operating sometime in the 2007-2008 time-frame, and in response to its impending demise there has been an agonized outcry from leading scientists and the informed lay public alike. (See “Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope,” http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11169.html).

You may be asking, “What has the HST done for me?” Who can ever forget those dazzling pictures of the eerie “pillars of dust” in the Eagle nebula that appeared on the front pages of newspapers and popular trade and consumer magazines around the world? And not only that: the HST has expanded our knowledge of the galaxies in many ways, for example, by direct observation of the universe as it existed more than 12 billion years ago. If the HST gradually stops operating and goes out of orbit by the end of this decade, much vital astronomical research will be halted. Is NASA out of its mind?

In fact, NASA may be erring on the side of its own unfounded optimism. NASA has proposed that the previously planned SM-4 servicing mission be replaced with an unmanned and untested robotic mission. But the software needed for such a mission is not yet available and may not be deemed sufficiently reliable until the latter part of this decade. If used earlier, chances are, the mission will fail largely because the HST lacks the automatic docking facility that has been used on the international space station, for example. And the sophisticated grappling and teleoperating features needed for this mission are still mostly unproven for the HST. Imagine trying to control a 10-ft robotic arm at the end of a 50-ft-long crane-and with a round-trip instruction delay of several seconds. And what if the robot operators see a new problem?

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is more set on manned flights to the Moon and to Mars, together with more work on the International Space Station-all expensive but highly visible projects. Many scientists believe that these projects are expensive PR for NASA and may be scientifically worthless. So it’s up to Congress to take some action and it’s up to us to prod our elected representatives into forcing NASA’s hand. The best way to do this is to send e-mails to your Senator and Representative-you can usually find a suitable address on the politicos’ web sites. If you can’t locate a web site, do a Google search on the individual’s name.

This simple action won’t even cost you a 37-cent stamp and an envelope and, curiously enough, most legislators not only read e-mails from their constituents but they respond by taking action. I guess the feeling in D.C. is that people who feel strongly enough to bat out an e-mail are more than likely to be active voters. It pays to speak up. The Hubble Space Telescope cannot speak for itself but, as scientists, we must.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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