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January 17, 2004

NASA Cancels Trip to Supply Hubble, Sealing Early Doom


Savor those cosmic postcards while you can. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration decreed an early death yesterday to one of its flagship missions and most celebrated successes, the Hubble Space Telescope.

In a midday meeting at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., two days after President Bush ordered NASA to redirect its resources toward human exploration of the Moon and Mars, the agency's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, told the managers of the space telescope that there would be no more shuttle visits to maintain it.

A visit by astronauts to install a couple of the telescope's scientific instruments and replace the gyroscopes and batteries had been planned for next year. Without any more visits, the telescope, the crown jewel of astronomy for 10 years, will probably die in orbit sometime in 2007, depending on when its batteries or gyroscopes fail for good.

"It could die tomorrow, it could last to 2011," said Dr. Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore. Dr. Beckwith said he and his colleagues were devastated.

At a news conference last night, Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, the agency's chief scientist and an astronaut who has been to the Hubble two times, called the the telescope the "best marriage of human spaceflight and science."

"It is a sad day that we have to announce this," Dr. Grunsfeld added.

As the news flashed around the world by e-mail, other astronomers joined the Hubble team in their shock. Dr. David N. Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton and a member of a committee that advises NASA on space science, called it a "double whammy" for astronomy. Not only was a telescope being lost, but $200 million worth of instruments that had been built to be added in the later shuttle mission will also be left on the ground, Dr. Spergel said.

Dr. Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz who is also on the advisory committee, said, "I think this is a mistake," noting that the Hubble was still doing work at the forefront of science.

Dr. Tod Lauer, of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson, said, "This is a pretty nasty turn of events, coming immediately on the heels of `W's' endorsement of space exploration."

The demise of the Hubble will leave astronomers with no foreseeable prospect of a telescope in space operating primarily at visible wavelengths. The announcement also precludes hopes that astronomers had of using the Hubble in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launching in 2011 and which is being designed for infrared wavelengths, to study galaxies at the far reaches of time.

Ground-based telescopes like the 10-meter-diameter Kecks on Mauna Kea are growing more powerful, and the use of adaptive optics to tune out the blurring effects of the atmosphere lets them approach the resolution of the Hubble in limited cases. But they are blinded by the atmosphere to ultraviolet and infrared light.

Floating above the murky atmosphere of Earth, the Hubble, launched in 1990, has had the ability to see into the depths of space and time with unprecedented clarity, glimpsing galaxies that were under construction when the universe was half its present age and helping cosmologists chart how the mysterious "dark energy" has gradually taken over the expansion of the universe.

Periodic service calls by shuttle astronauts repaired a series of early problems and have continually refurbished the telescope and kept it at the fore of cosmic research. The mission next year would have left the telescope in good shape to continue working through the end of the decade, when NASA plans to bring it down. But the service missions are expensive, more than $500 million each.

More important, NASA officials say, after the Columbia catastrophe a year ago, the missions are also considered dangerous. The shuttles do not carry enough fuel to reach the space station in case of trouble.

In its report on the shuttle disaster last summer, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended that there be a way to inspect and repair the shuttle's heat shields, which were damaged after the Columbia lifted off. That is easily conducted if the craft is at the space station, but not at the Hubble.

In his remarks to the astronomers on Friday, according to those present, Mr. O'Keefe referred to that recommendation and said it would be too difficult to develop that ability for a single trip to the telescope.

Given enough time, NASA might have developed the tools to do it, Dr. Grunsfeld said, but the decision to retire the shuttles in 2010 foreclosed that possibility.

"Cost was not an issue," he said.

Many astronomers, however, noting that the decision came on the heels of Mr. Bush's directive to NASA to reallocate $11 billion of its resources over the next five years into returning people to the Moon, said money was doubtless also a consideration.

Presenting the decision as a safety-related issue, the astronomers said, lessened the odds that it would be challenged, by, say NASA's Congressional overseers.

NASA is not completely off the hook as far as the Hubble is concerned. The agency is committed to bringing it back to Earth safely after its useful life ends. Until the Columbia accident, NASA had planned to retrieve the telescope with a shuttle and put it in the Smithsonian. Now the plan is to build a robotic rocket that would go up, attach itself to the telescope and fire its engine to brake Hubble out of orbit and drop it in the ocean.

Paradoxically, Dr. Spergel said, the cost of developing such a rocket, estimated at $300 million or more, would come out of the NASA astronomy budget. It is, he said, another double whammy.

One mission gets canceled, he said, and "what's our next mission, deorbit the telescope?"

For now, of course, the Hubble lives. Dr. Beckwith said: "We at the institute are devastated by the potential loss of Hubble. But we will do our absolute best to make the final years of its life the most glorious science you've ever seen."

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