Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Hubble Updates

Here are a few updates on the situation with Hubble. Events are moving faster than I have been able to post. As I noted in my previous post, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has decided that the final Hubble servicing mission, scheduled for next year, would be cancelled. This would mean not only shortening Hubble's life, but abandoning work on two instruments which were nearly ready for deployment. This is a really terrible decision, made for (in my opinion) foolish reasons that don't bode very well for space flight in general. Read the previous post for more.

It's possible that this decision is not final, and that it can be changed by public (or scientific) pressure.

(As an aside, a fellow familiar with these things once told me that Congress decides appropriations on the Scream Method (I forget his exact phrase). That is, when looking at too many projects and not enough money---a perennial problem, naturally---they will decide to cut one that looks like it won't have many supporters. Then the Word is given, and the supporters of this particular project all write their Congressman or talk to their contacts, and raise bloody hell, and the project is reinstated. Once this is done for every marginal project, those whose supporters have not screamed loudly enough are cut permanently. I don't think it's exactly the same thing here, but close.)

Here's an account of Sean O'Keefe's meeting with the Hubble Team, written by Steve Beckwith, director of the Space Science Telescope Institute (STScI). The notable bits of this article, in my opinion, are:

  • O'Keefe said that his decision was a close one, in that there were no overwhelming arguments for either side.

  • It was Beckwith's impression that O'Keefe believed that the mission would extend Hubble's life for only a few years, and that was a factor in his decision. As Beckwith points out, this is not really correct.

  • O'Keefe said he would speed up the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, formerly NGST), and that money would not be an object there, only manufacturing capability.

  • Beckwith wants to think about ways to service Hubble without using the shuttle. I tend to think he's being rather naive here, but I'm not certain.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has urged O'Keefe to re-think his decision. (STScI is in Maryland, and so is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where NASA communicates with Hubble. Furthermore, Mikulski is ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that deals with NASA's budget.) Apparently, this effort has borne fruit; O'Keefe has decided to review the decision. Apparently, this entails asking Admiral Hal Gehman, head of the board that investigated the loss of the Columbia, to look into it. I don't know whether this is actual good news, or if O'Keefe figures he knows Gehman's conclusion. has this article on Mikulski's letter. Steve Beckwith is quoted as saying, "We're in the mode of pursuing every wacky concept out there," (to continue the servicing mission). Sky & Telescope has an appropriate quote from the manager of Hubble servicing, Frank Cepollina:

"In the spirit of exploration, we cannot allow ourselves to go into handwringing mode," he told Sky & Telescope. "We have to stay upbeat. We'll find a way to fly COS and WFC3 if the astronomers want to do it badly enough."

[COS and WFC3 are the two new instruments that were going to be put on in the next servicing mission. This was in addition to fresh batteries and gyroscopes.] is flooding the Hubble zone, with a jillion articles including this one on options that are being considered, including Beckwith's "wacky concepts". Apparently that includes accepting private donations. This option was mooted over at Samizdata. I commented that it wasn't a question of lack of money, it was (ostensibly) the safety of the shuttle. So I'm not quite sure what even billionaires' donations would buy us, unless of course it's an entirely new replacement program for the shuttle. More power to 'em, if so.

(Some of the articles linked on that page are kind of old, so remember that events have overtaken some of them.)

Sky & Telescope has an article about how you can help, but I'm not sure how useful the information is now that O'Keefe is reviewing the decision.

After my last post on this topic, a fellow wrote in suggesting that it didn't matter that Hubble would not be serviced, because, hey, NASA had two more telescopes to replace it, the recently launched Spitzer telescope (formerly SIRTF), and the in-development JWST (formerly NGST).

The Spitzer is most certainly not a substitute for Hubble! They have completely different wavelength ranges: Hubble's various instruments work from 1150 Angstroms out to 2.5 microns (25,000 angstroms), whereas Spitzer's wavelength range is 3.6 to 120 microns. The two telescopes are meant for different types of science. The JWST does have a greater overlap with Hubble: it works from 6000 Angstroms out to 28 microns. This leaves out some visible and all the UV wavelengths that Hubble can observe.

(For a quick visual guide to the Spitzer's instruments, see here. I couldn't find a nice overview like that for the Hubble; I could only find these eye-glazing tables, meant for astronomers. A few facts about the JWST's instruments are here, but mostly in text. The instrument designs probably haven't been finalized yet.)

Note that both these telescopes will be put into solar orbit, they will not be serviceable on-orbit. The Spitzer has a hoped-for maximum lifetime of 5 years; the Hubble could still be working when it dies. The JWST lifetime is 5 - 10 years.

I'm all for cheap, disposable telescopes that are not intended to be serviced (not that these really fall in that category). Better yet, let's have observatories on the Mooooon! But until we have those, let's not throw away what we do have unnecessarily.