WASHINGTON, May 10 (UPI) -- Indications are growing that the aging Hubble Space Telescope will not be allowed to die -- even if the U.S. space shuttle fleet will not be used to save it.
More and more, it appears that NASA -- or even an international consortium of some kind -- will deploy a robotic space mission sometime in the next few years to service or repair the telescope.
This new development is the product of a trio of factors contributing to the space agency's rethinking on the Hubble, which has been orbiting since 1990 and long ago exceeded its expected operational lifetime.
First, assessments by Hubble scientists are there is a near certainty the spacecraft's batteries and other equipment will degrade past the point of normal operations sometime within the next four years. The batteries are necessary to run Hubble's gyroscopes, which keep the telescope pointed precisely at its observation targets. Hubble also needs at least three gyroscopes to perform properly, one fewer than the number currently functioning out of an original total of six -- although engineers are attempting to develop an emergency plan to continue operations using only two.
Second, the astronomy community has come to realize that, in several critical areas of inquiry, Hubble has become an indispensable -- perhaps irreplaceable -- instrument.
Research involving such exotic subjects as the re-ionization of the universe; the formation and behavior of galaxy-class, supermassive black holes; the search for dark energy and for extrasolar planets that might be capable of sustaining life, all have become nearly the sole province of the Hubble. Without it, studies in these areas would be dealt a severe blow.
Third, there has been a surprising amount of interest by NASA contractors in a possible robotic servicing mission.
Last Feb. 20, the agency requested ideas and information on the concept of a robotic mission. NASA received 26 responses, from a wide variety of concerns, both public and private.
Even the Johnson Space Center in Houston -- a part of NASA itself -- is proposing to launch what it calls a "robonaut" -- a humanlike machine with arms and fingers that could stand in for astronauts when conventional spacewalks could prove particularly dangerous -- into orbit to tackle repairs on and upgrades of the Hubble.
Whatever is decided, however, must happen quickly. In fact, NASA officials said they must decide within the next 30 days whether to put out bids for a robotic rescue mission for the telescope, because the longer the delay, the greater the chance the telescope will malfunction -- perhaps beyond the point of repair.
Actually, NASA already has a robotic mission planned for the Hubble, but its purpose is to grab the spacecraft and plunge it deliberately back into Earth's atmosphere for a controlled burn up, to prevent the intercity bus-sized craft from slamming into a populated area at 15,000 miles per hour or so.
The question of Hubble's eventual fate -- and the next installment of the spacecraft's saga -- will be determined not because of feasibility, however, but because of money.
The agency has budgeted about $300 million for a so-called controlled de-orbiting, but that might be only half the cost of a repair mission, particularly if it is attempted on a tight timeline. This could be bad news for Hubble supporters because, as Frank Sietzen reported recently for United Press International, there is only lukewarm support in Congress -- at a time of huge expenditures for the rebuilding of Iraq and record budget deficits -- for expanding the space agency's budget.
When President George W. Bush crafted his new space exploration vision for NASA last January, one of its key constituents was to retire the shuttle fleet and divert spending that originally was planned for the shuttle to develop a new generation of rockets. It could be difficult to justify diverting $500 million or $600 million of that effort for a Hubble rescue.
Still, the telescope represents the jewel in the crown of the world's astronomical research, an instrument that might not be replaced for a decade or more. The nearest possibility is the James Webb Space Telescope, but it is not due to be launched until 2011, and the Webb's instruments operate in near-infrared light, not in the visible range.
If it turns out that despite the growing pressure from the astronomy community, NASA still cannot manage a Hubble rescue mission, there is one other possibility -- a robotic rescue attempt by one of the other spacefaring concerns, such as the European Space Agency or perhaps even the Russian space agency.
Such an outcome would be less than desirable because it would no doubt mean turning over some control of the Hubble. But if it ends up as the only way to preserve a spacecraft that has changed, fundamentally, the way science looks at the universe, it might be considered a small price to pay.
Phil Berardelli is UPI's Science & Technology Editor. E-mail email@example.com