NASA gets two new Hubble Telescopes absolutely free!!

It hardly bears mentioning that the orbiting Hubble Space
Telescope is one of the most extraordinarily successful scientific
instruments of all time. Since 1993, when the telescope's flawed
mirror was set right by a set of custom-fit corrective lenses, the
Hubble has captured one spectacular image after another, of
everything from the familiar planets of the Solar System to
quasars and galaxies at the very edge of the visible universe — and
thanks to four repair missions by shuttle-riding astronauts, the
telescope has managed to survive the harsh
environment of orbital space far longer than
anyone could have imagined. All good things must
come to an end, though. The shuttle is flying no
more, and within the next couple of years, the aging telescope will
gradually wink out too. It will be a terrible loss to science, and it kind of
makes you wish someone had a spare Hubble secretly stashed
away, just waiting to be unpacked and sent into orbit. That's what
would happen in the Hollywood version, anyway.

That, it turns out, is what's happening in real life too. The National
Science Foundation has just revealed the existence of not one, but two pristine,
Hubble-class space telescopes, still in their original wrappings, in a
warehouse in Rochester, N.Y. The pair was originally built for
the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency in charge of
spy satellites, to look down at Earth rather than up into space. But
the NRO has moved on to bigger and better instruments, and
decided to hand the telescopes over. "It just blew me a way when I
heard about this," says Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, a
member of the National Academy of Science's Committee On
Astrophysics and Astronomy. "I knew nothing about it."
The unexpected gift has sent NASA and the astronomical
community, which have learned to live with smaller budgets and
lower expectations in recent years, into a mild state of shock. It's not
at all clear what they'll do with this astonishing gift — and indeed, even
among the handful of scientists who have been in on the secret,
there's only a general consensus on how they might use just one of
the telescopes, never mind both. "Everyone I've talked to," says
Spergel, "has said we should follow the Decadal Survey." This is
the once-every-ten- year report astronomers present to
NASA with a wish list of space missions, ranked in order of
importance — establishing a sort of united front that
relieves the space agency of having to decide on its own what
science projects are the most crucial.

In the most recent Decadal Survey, issued in 2010, the
astronomers asked for a new space telescope sensitive to the infrared
light that comes from newborn galaxies and newborn planets, and
with a much wider field of view than Hubble's sharp but narrow eye.
This proposed scope, known as WFIRST (the Wide-Field Infrared
Survey Telescope) , would also study dark energy and dark
matter, but in order to save money would be less than half Hubble's
size. With the news of the free telescopes, however, astronomers
are talking about the possibility of building a "WFIRST-plus." The
basic scope — mirrors,mountings, enclosure — that they'll be getting
from the NRO makes up somewhere between a third and half the cost
of the finished product; the rest goes to the instruments that
process and record cosmic light. "We can do it better, and potentially
cheaper, because we don't need to buy the telescope,"
says Spergel. "What's not clear is, do you just have the original
infrared camera, or do you take advantage of this opportunity to add,
say, a coronagraph?" That would be a very big deal, since the job of
a coronagraph is to block out the blazing light of a star to let the
much dimmer light of a planet shine through. With it, says Paul Hertz,
NASA's director of astrophysics, the telescope could capture
images of Jupiter-like planets around nearby
stars and possibly Earth-like planets as well — an achievement
astronomers thought wouldn't be possible until late in the 2020's.

But while the free scopes are essentially there for the taking,
there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The cost of adapting
cameras and other instruments to the rest of the components,
then launching the whole thing and operating it for years
won't be insignificant. "A 50% discount still means you have to
come up with the other 50%," says Spergel. Still, getting the new scope
into space should at least be a lot cheaper than it was to launch
the Hubble. "Hubble," he says, "is really a 1960's- era telescope. It's very
heavy and fairly long. This one will be lighter and smaller." Even with
drastic upgrades, Hertz thinks it's plausible it would cost just $1
billion to adapt and launch the proposed WFIRST — an absurdly
low figure for such a powerful machine As for the second free
telescope, the consensus so far, says Spergel is that "we wait
until sometime in the 2020's to decide what to do with it." At the
moment, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble's official
successor, is eating up the lion's share of NASA's science budget,
and even at a discount there's no way the agency can move ahead
with both of the unexpected freebies at once.
All of these ideas are preliminary, however. "A few of us began
discussing this quietly when we first learned about it," says Spergel,
"and now we'll be talking to the wider community." It will take a while, he says, before
there's a concrete plan on how to move forward. Until that
happens, astronomers will just enjoy the improbable fact they've
been given two shiny, brand-new toys to play with — and Christmas
is still half a year away.

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