High Hopes for Hubble

Have you been impressed by the spectacular images and landmark discoveries produced with the Hubble Space Telescope over the last 17 years? Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Hubble Servicing
Astronauts John Grunsfeld (left) and Richard Linnehan work to replace some of the Hubble Space Telescope's electronics during the last servicing mission in 2002. One of the spacecraft's solar-cell arrays looms at right.
NASA
That's the message driven home today at the American Astronomical Society meeting now under way in Austin, Texas. After the upcoming servicing mission by Space Shuttle astronauts, currently scheduled for August, Hubble will be "at its apex, unequalled in terms of capability," says Alan Stern, NASA's associate administrator for science.

The main reason for the superlatives is the planned installation of two powerful new scientific instruments: the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS). WFC3, which operates at visible, infrared, and ultraviolet wavelengths, offers higher resolution, greater sensitivity, and a more expansive field of view than the camera it's replacing. COS will dissect the ultraviolet light from faint stars and remote active galactic nuclei with unprecedented sensitivity. It'll go in the instrument bay now occupied by COSTAR, the device installed in 1993 to compensate for the telescope's misshapen primary mirror. (All the instruments installed since then include their own corrective optics, so COSTAR isn't needed anymore.)

According to NASA astronaut John M. Grunsfeld, the lead spacewalker on the mission and a veteran of two previous Hubble visits, the most challenging tasks on the flight will be repairs to two other scientific instruments.

John Grunsfeld
Astronaut John Grunsfeld shows attendees at the AAS meeting in Austin, Texas, a glove like the one he'll be wearing during his spacewalks to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in August 2008.
S&T: Rick Fienberg
The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) were knocked out of action by separate electrical problems. Grunsfeld and his crewmates will attempt to replace circuit boards in each instrument, which involves opening electronics boxes never designed to be serviced in orbit. The tough part will be removing hundreds of tiny screws without letting any of them float into the telescope's innards, where they could cause short circuits or other disasters.

Besides adding and fixing instruments, the astronauts plan to replace one of Hubble's guidance sensors and all its batteries and gyroscopes. They'll also add new insulation blankets and use the shuttle's rockets to raise the telescope's orbital altitude. This should enable Hubble to operate for another 5 to 10 years, long enough to overlap with the James Webb Space Telescope, a larger reflector scheduled for launch in 2013 and optimized for observations at infrared wavelengths. Without servicing, Hubble would probably stop working within the next two to three years due to gyroscope or battery failures.

Grunsfeld says that he and his crewmates have convinced themselves they can do all that's being asked of them. All that remains between now and their launch aboard the shuttle Atlantis is to practice...and practice...and practice.

David Leckrone (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center), Hubble's senior project scientist, says that if the astronauts manage to complete all the planned repairs and upgrades, the telescope will have nearly 100 times the "discovery power" that it has now. In other words, it'll be able to acquire images and spectra with vastly greater efficiency, thanks to its improved sensitivity and resolution over wider fields. NASA's flagship orbiting observatory will be "better than it has ever been before," says Leckrone.

It almost wasn't going to happen. In 2004, then NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe put an end to Hubble servicing amid safety concerns following the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven. New administrator Michael Griffin reversed that decision after post-Columbia improvements to the shuttle program made flying to Hubble safer. It didn't hurt that a high-level panel of astronomers and other scientists had also concluded that Hubble would continue to produce world-class science.

Sometime around 2020, astronauts may visit Hubble one last time — presumably aboard NASA's new Orion spacecraft — but not to service it. Instead, they'll attach a retrorocket to the telescope's aft end. Or maybe that'll be done robotically. However it gets there, the rocket will be used to steer Hubble to a harmless reentry over the Pacific Ocean.

12 thoughts on “High Hopes for Hubble

  1. Rob

    The spacecraft should be brought safely home abord the next gen shuttles, not rocketed into the pacific. It should be brought home and studied to see how something weathers in space for 25+ years. Then it should be put in a museum for all to cherish.

  2. carsten wordelL

    I belive that there at one time there had been a plan to bring it back on a shuttle and put it in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. The mounting hardware used to enable the shuttle to bring it up in the first place is probably sitting somewhere in a NASA warehouse. So it’s probably doable. I just wonder what story is on the change of plans.

  3. Thomas E Ewing

    I may not have the eloquence of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who penned a poem that saved the U.S.S. Constitution, but my sentiments are the same. The Hubble Space Telescope should be brought back to rest in honor at the Smithsonian.

  4. Gary Huff

    I concur with the others. There is still MUCH science to be learned from Hubble by studying what effect 25 years of space flight has done to the instrument and its associated circuitry and assemblies. After that, it certainly deserves a place of high honor in a museum somewhere. If not the Smithsonian, then the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago would seem like a natural resting place. Wouldn’t it be nice if future generations of young astronomers-in-development could come and gaze at this marvelous instrument? Without question, it is the most important telescope in history, second only to Galileo’s original instrument. It deserves to be preserved.

  5. Chris Graham

    I read the other comments and I agree whole heartily that we should bring Hubble Home. She has been up inspace for 17 years and she could be up there for another 10. She went up when children were born and now they are young adults. Hubble has taken beautiful pictures and has answered so many astronomical questions about our Universe. But, more imporatantly, she has also made us have to ask many more questions about our Universe. Hubble was one of a kind when she was put into orbit and the first of what we all hoped will be many more space telescopes. Hubble should be honored by placement into the Smithsonian. Sure it will cost money, but the Shuttle has to go up to strap on the booster retro rocket right? Just grab it, park it, secure it, and then come home. Sounds easier than strapping a retro rocket on it. Come on NASA, bring her home.

  6. Julian Aucken (in the UK)

    It would indeed be a travesty for Hubble to be thrown away at the ‘end’ of its life. Not only does it ‘deserve’ an honourable retirement, think of its educational value. Mounting a special mission to attach a retro-rocket must surely be not much cheaper than mounting that same mission to recover it. I agree entirely with the sentiments of the other contributors to this thread. It must be saved, for posterity.

  7. Gregg

    I, too, would love to see Hubble come home, but it may not be as easy as suggested. Hubble was placed into space by giant rocket boosters, but the shuttle is a rock with wings when it comes back.

    Having the extra weight of the Hubble scope in its belly may be the main reason a shuttle cannot bring it home.

    Gregg

  8. Allan Holmgren

    This fantastic telescope was designed to be routinely serviced. It can easily give us another 30 years of breakthrough science. When the James Webb is put into orbit it should be put in a trojan points orbit with Hubble with a 3,000 KM baseline. The twoo telescopes could be used individually and when needed could be synced up to give us the most fantastic VLBL space telescope that astronomers have ever dreamed of. I hope someone at NASA has the vision to push for this to happen.

  9. Rick Fienberg

    The only way to bring Hubble back to Earth is in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle. Originally NASA expected to do just that. (With reference to Gregg’s comment, anything that goes up in the shuttle has to be able to come down in it in case the orbiter has to execute a “return to launch site” abort during launch.) Now, though, the shuttle is scheduled to be retired in 2010. Since neither NASA nor any other space agency is developing a next-generation shuttle, this leaves Hubble without a ride home.

    It’s simply not possible to use Hubble with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for interferometry. JWST is an infrared observatory, so it needs to be in a high orbit far from Earth’s heat, which would swamp its detectors.

  10. Marv Abraham

    The ISS will be decomissioned around 2020. It will suffer the same fate as Hubble. Why not add booster rockets to it and send it to a higher orbit and save it for future endeavors. It’s 60+ billion dollars, and I have paid more than my share of taxes. There must be some better fate than the bottom of the Pacific…

    Marv

  11. Wayne Christensen

    How about putting Hubble in a parking orbit around the moon. After astronauts go back there could they use the parts for a lunar based telescope. Imagine the resolution of THAT VLBL!…Wayne

  12. Wayne Christensen

    How about putting Hubble in a parking orbit around the moon. After astronauts go back there could they use the parts for a lunar based telescope. Imagine the resolution of THAT VLBL!…Wayne

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