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NRC pleads case for Hubble mercy mission

'Compelling scientific returns' from manned rescue

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NASA should not close the book on sending manned service missions to Hubble, according to a preliminary report issued yesterday by the US National Research Council (NRC). In a letter (which you can read here) addressed to NASA's top Administrator Sean O'Keefe, the research council said that there are "compelling scientific returns" to be gained by continuing to maintain and upgrade the space telescope, as planned.

The NRC urged NASA not to rule out sending astronauts to the telescope, in a direct challenge to Administrator O'Keefe's decision earlier this year to cancel any manned shuttle missions that did not involve the International Space Station.

Hubble was launched in 1990, and was designed to last in orbit for 15 years. Since then, it has been upgraded and fixed several times. Prior to the destruction of the shuttle Columbia in February 2003, and the tragic loss of her crew, NASA had planned to send another servicing mission to Hubble - a move that would extend the telescope's useful life.

According to Space.com, this mission would have included installing two new instruments, designed to improve Hubble's view of the Ultraviolet spectrum, on the telescope. Both instruments - the Wide Field Camera-3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph - are already built.

In January 2004, O'Keefe said that to comply with the safety recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), no further shuttle missions would be flown to Hubble. The Astronomy community was devastated, and immediately called for investigation into the alternatives. Various robotic fixes have been put forward, and may yet extend the life of the telescope.

As things stand, a servicing mission of some kind is planned for 2007. Its stated purpose is to give the craft the instructions it needs to "de-orbit" safely into the Pacific Ocean. However, NASA has called for suggestions on how this mission could be modified to include replacing batteries and on-board gyroscopes, which will begin to fail at around this time. The replacements would mean that Hubble, without upgrades, would stay functional until around 2013.

The NRC Committee says it will evaluate the viability of a service mission to Hubble that would satisfy all the safety recommendations made by the CAIB, as well as those made by NASA's own team. It will then provide a risk benefit assessment of running either a shuttle service mission, or a robotic service mission.

The letter includes an outline of the importance of continuing to service Hubble, including an extensive list of the telescope's discoveries and contributions to our understanding of the universe. From the discovery of adolescent galaxies, to confirmation of gravitational lensing, right through to the discovery of nearby stars with protoplanetary disks, and confirmed gas giants orbiting other near neighbours.

The final report should be ready by late summer, or early autumn, the committee says. ®

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