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Calling All Robots: Hubble Needs You

2 June 2004 (All day)
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Aye, robot. The Hubble Space Telescope may remain in orbit past 2007 with help from a robotic repair mission.

DENVER, COLORADO--NASA will try to prolong the life of its flagship astronomy mission, the Hubble Space Telescope, by sending a robotic repair craft to rendezvous with the satellite by the end of 2007. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced his decision here 1 June in an impassioned address to 1000 astronomers at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. But Hubble's woes are far from solved--the technical challenges of robotic servicing are steep, and observers remain skeptical that NASA will embrace an expensive mission to fully upgrade the telescope.

Rumors had swirled for weeks that NASA engineers were leaning toward robotics as a feasible way to save Hubble (ScienceNOW, 11 May). In his first major speech to astronomers since his controversial decision in January to abandon a planned space shuttle mission to Hubble, O'Keefe explained why. "The Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended that we change our culture to a commitment to 'prove that it is safe' [to send astronauts to Hubble]," he said. "We're nowhere near close to proving that it's safe." Rather, O'Keefe said, advanced robots, more sophisticated than any so far flown in space, could do the job without risking lives. "We seek capabilities that highly dexterous robots assisted by humans on the ground could bring to this mission," he said. "People will still be servicing Hubble."

NASA's call for proposals asks for robotic attachments that, at a minimum, would steer Hubble into the ocean when its orbit expires, sometime after 2010. Ideally, however, a "telerobotics" approach would let mission controllers replace Hubble's aging batteries and pointing-control gyroscopes, now projected to fail by 2007, O'Keefe said. A full-scale mission also would install two powerful new observing instruments in the telescope's body--an outcome that would delight astronomers, although most fear the task will prove too complex. "We're quite optimistic that we will get some responsible and creative ideas," O'Keefe said. The deadline is tight: Proposals are due by 16 July.

Reactions to O'Keefe's remarks were optimistic but reserved. "It was an excellent speech, and I was very pleased to hear him reaffirm NASA's support for astronomy research in space," said astronomer C. Megan Urry of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Some listeners bemoaned O'Keefe's lack of a specific commitment to achieve all that a crew of astronauts would have done. "He left room for servicing Hubble without restoring its capabilities," said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "I'd be disappointed if that happens. The public doesn't want Hubble on life support."

Related sites
Text of O'Keefe's speech
Hubble Space Telescope research

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