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NASA has launched a feasibility study into a robotic servicing mission that could save Hubble from falling into a state of total disrepair. The primary goal of such a scheme would be to install a 'de-orbit' module on Hubble, effectively a way to crash it, safely, on Earth.

But NASA is hopeful that the robot it sends could repair some systems while it is there. Other tasks could include installing new batteries, gyros and possibly new science instruments that would effectively upgrade Hubble, and allow it to look even further into deep space.

Speaking at the American Astronomical Society Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, NASA's chief administrator, Sean O'Keefe, said that his goal was to maintain the Hubble as a productive scientific asset, even with the restrictions that have been in place since Columbia.

Hubble, he said, is a marvel: "Hubble is one of the most accomplished scientific instruments ever created. It has helped us confirm the existence of black holes, define the nature of quasars, more precisely measure the age of the universe, examine the birth and death of stars, detect the acceleration of the universal expansion rate, and even measure the components of the atmospheres of planets that orbit nearby stars."

Scheduled maintenence missions to Hubble were cancelled because of safety concerns raised by the Columbia Shuttle disaster, in which eight astronauts were lost. This means Hubble will gradually break down, and there will be no extra-atmosphereic telescope until the 2011 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The space agency has invited propopsals for a solution to arrive no later than 16 July this year, as the servicing mission must be completed by the end of 2007. ®

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