Sunday, December 12, 2004

NYT: Hubble in peril

More evidence of the Bush administration's anti-science agenda. They've reduced the Science budget and will do what they can to allow Hubble to die. They are far from comfortable with a device that proves that the universe is more than 13 billion years old. Their plan to put a man on Mars is a clever maneuver to divert funds from real science. --RB
December 12, 2004
A Blow to NASA's Hubble Rescue

The space agency's plan to rescue its most important scientific instrument, the Hubble Space Telescope, with a robotic servicing mission looks increasingly like a bad bet. A panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences concluded last week that there was only a remote chance a robotic mission could be mounted quickly enough to succeed and some danger that it might damage the instrument. Instead, the panel said that NASA should send astronauts up on a shuttle flight to service and rescue this incredibly valuable telescope before its gyroscopes and batteries begin to fail a few years from now.

The academy's unusually blunt assessment and a similar judgment by the Aerospace Corporation provide the strongest evidence yet that NASA ought to reconsider its previous opposition to a shuttle rescue flight. The paramount goal ought to be preserving the Hubble by any means necessary, even if that requires diverting the shuttle from other tasks and slowing the president's grandiose plans to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars in future years. If the space agency balks, Congress will need to insist that NASA make the Hubble its highest near-term priority and use the shuttle if necessary.

There is no longer any doubt that the Hubble is worth saving. Although NASA officials have sometimes denigrated the Hubble as a waning asset whose best years are behind it, the academy panel concluded that Hubble's future discoveries would be every bit as spectacular as its past successes. That is a remarkable statement to make about any mature scientific instrument.

Hubble has observed the universe as it existed 12 billion years ago, helped establish the size and age of the universe and discovered massive black holes at the center of many galaxies, among a host of findings that have reshaped our understanding of cosmology.

If its batteries and gyroscopes are replaced and two new instruments placed aboard by a servicing mission, the rejuvenated Hubble is expected to help find 1,000 new planets in the Milky Way galaxy; trace the formation of the first stars and black holes; and elucidate the nature of the mysterious dark energy that permeates the universe, among myriad possibilities. Hubble's endless productivity is the fruit of periodic servicing missions that not only replace depleted batteries and gyroscopes but also upgrade the observational instruments to take advantage of technological advances.

Hubble has already been serviced four times by shuttle astronauts, and a fifth flight was scheduled when the loss of the shuttle Columbia last year forced NASA to ground the three remaining shuttles for safety modifications. All future flights will be dedicated to finishing the half-built space station now orbiting uselessly overhead. Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, has scrubbed the Hubble mission as too risky to undertake.

That excuse has now been exposed as a sham. The academy panel judged a shuttle flight to the Hubble only marginally more risky than a flight to the space station (and therefore far less risky than the combined 25 to 30 shuttle flights needed to complete the station). The tremendous scientific benefits to be gained from the Hubble are well worth the very small differential risk of a servicing flight, in the panel's judgment. Many astronauts clearly agree and are eager to fly to the Hubble. It is probably the most important contribution they could make to the advance of knowledge.

The academy favored an astronaut mission over robotics because the astronauts are far more likely to succeed. They have done the job well in the past and have the ability to cope with unexpected problems that might frustrate a robot. NASA has never carried out such a complex robotic repair and, based on its past history, is unlikely to pull this one off before Hubble conks out.

As of now NASA is pursuing a robotics program that it still deems highly promising and doing nothing to pursue an astronaut mission. The real reason the agency prefers robotics is that the same technologies might prove useful in the president's long-range plan to explore the Moon and Mars, whereas diverting a shuttle to the Hubble would disrupt NASA's planned high-speed dash to complete the station and retire the costly shuttles to free up money for the president's exploration program.

The agency faces two important design reviews for its robotics program next year. Unless those show astonishing progress, NASA should get cracking on an astronaut flight to the Hubble. The great danger is that NASA will convince itself and Congress that robotics will work, and then down the line confess failure and let a spectacularly successful telescope die from neglect.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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