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Panel urges NASA to keep Hubble telescope going

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Although it may not be realistic, the best scientific option for the Hubble Space Telescope would be two upgrades in the next seven years, extending the life of one of NASA's most successful projects, a panel of scientists said in a report released yesterday.

That situation, which would require two space shuttle flights to the orbiting observatory, might not be possible given questions about the shuttle's safety, the report acknowledges. But skipping the upgrades would bring an early end to Hubble's usefulness, causing a "major loss of science opportunity," the report states.

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NASA's existing timetable for Hubble, which was launched in 1990, includes a servicing mission in 2005 or 2006. The telescope would effectively stop working about 2010.

But some scientists want Hubble to continue, at least until the James Webb Space Telescope is launched, now scheduled for 2011. So the National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked the six-member panel whether the agency's plans for the telescope were the best thing, from a scientific standpoint.

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After the Columbia accident Feb. 1, NASA might decide that all future shuttle flights go to the international space station, where crews could take shelter if there are problems in orbit. But Hubble is in a different orbit than the space station.

The panel offered three options in order of priority:

Service Hubble twice, about 2005 and 2010. The second mission should be added only if strong proposals have been submitted, the panel said.

Keep the one servicing mission, before the end of 2006, to replace gyroscopes and install improved instruments. Install a propulsion device - done either by astronauts or a robotic mission - to help take the observatory out of orbit when its potential has been exhausted.

If no servicing mission is available, install the propulsion system robotically.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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