Saving Hubble: A No-Brainer

As my colleague Stuart Goldman reported last week on his blog, Sky & Telescope has changed locations for the first time in 50 years. We are now located at 90 Sherman Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about a kilometer (half mile) from our previous Bay State Road location. We are still unpacking boxes and crates, but we're starting to assume an air of normalcy and we're actually working on the next issues of S&T and Night Sky.

We also heard some very encouraging news today. NASA administrator Michael Griffin has given the green light to service the Hubble Space Telescope sometime in 2008. Citing safety concerns after the Columbia tragedy, previous administrator Sean O'Keefe had canceled the mission, which would have meant the death knell of the facility before this decade was out. But ever since Griffin assumed the reigns of NASA in 2005, he had given positive vibes about a fifth and final servicing mission, and barring catastrophe on an upcoming shuttle flight, I think it's extremely likely that it will happen.

The mission will give Hubble a new lease on life by installing new gyroscopes and batteries, which will probably extend the mission to about 2013. Better yet, the astronauts will install two new instruments that will enable entirely new science: the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3.

While I applaud Griffin's decision, this was a no-brainer. Independent studies have shown that flying to Hubble is only slightly more dangerous than flying to the International Space Station (ISS). But Hubble is vastly cheaper, and its scientific productivity has outstripped ISS to such a huge extent that comparing the two is about as competitive as a baseball game between the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and the S&T all stars. Flying this servicing mission is the cheapest way to add the equivalent of a new Great Observatory. And given the fact that there are no big space observatory launches on the horizon until the James Webb Space Telescope in 2014 or thereabouts, this announcement will come as particularly welcome news to most research astronomers. The fact that Hubble is still oversubscribed by a factor of 7 to 1 means it is nowhere near the end of its scientific productivity, even if no new instruments were being added. Most of all, Hubble is too important a scientific asset to let die in orbit while it remains a cutting-edge discovery machine.

Today's Hubble announcement overshadows another important development. NASA has just selected three low-cost Discovery missions for concept studies. These spacecraft, if funded to completion, will return a sample from an asteroid, study the chemistry of Venus's atmosphere, and map the Moon in detail to reveal its internal structure. These are exciting missions, so stay tuned!

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