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NASA moots robotic Hubble fix

Plans embryonic but optimism widespread

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Hubble may yet be saved, despite the cancellation of service missions to the space telescope that followed the Columbia disaster.

Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator, said that a small spacecraft could be designed, which would attach itself to Hubble and act as a back-up battery. This would be much easier than replacing the batteries, which would be a very difficult job for a robot, he told BBC Online. He also suggested that the craft could take over the gyroscopic control of Hubble.

Hints that a solution was on the way appear in a 10 March letter (PDF copy here) from NASA head Sean O'Keefe to Senator Barbara Mikulski. O'Keefe notes that a call for ideas on how Hubble could be saved has elicited some interesting suggestions.

He wrote: "[The] responses have included promising concepts on extension of power generational capabilities robotically. Indeed, these options appear more likely that the low probability of timely servicing mission in compliance with the Board recomendations."

O'Keefe is referring to post-Columbia disaster safety recommendations which effectively ruled out any shuttle mission which did not include a visit to the International Space Station. Hubble missions do not include this stop, and so were grounded.

Since then, the organisation has been investigating other possibilities in a bid to extend the life of the telescope. However, these alternative plans are still in very early stages, and are by no means a cure-all.

According to Weiler, it is likely that Hubble's gyros would have failed by the time a rescue mission could be sent (2007/08), and even if the power and pointing could be taken over by another craft, upgrading optical kit would still need a manned mission. Despite these obstacles, Weiler insists that there is a lot of optimism within NASA about the robotic possibilities.

More information is expected to be available in June. ®

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