Hubble faces an early end to space role

The Hubble Space Telescope, which revolutionized the study of the cosmos and is considered one of the finest scientific instruments ever constructed, will be forced into early retirement, NASA officials said yesterday.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told telescope managers and engineers that he was scrubbing the final space shuttle flight that would have installed new scientific instruments and replaced critical targeting and power components.


His announcement, during a meeting at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, came two days after President Bush ordered the space agency to reallocate $11 billion from its five-year budget to focus on sending humans to the moon and beyond.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration already had plans to retire the Hubble in 2010. But without its scheduled 2006 tune-up, which included the replacement of aging gyroscopes and batteries, officials said the telescope might not last beyond 2007.


That would leave astronomers without a comparable instrument until the more powerful James Webb Space Telescope is launched in 2011.

"People are devastated," said Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where 450 scientists, engineers and other personnel coordinate Hubble research for NASA. "This is the most prominent science facility in the world."

NASA officials said they didn't expect any immediate job losses at the institute or at Goddard, which manages the spacecraft itself.

The space agency signed a $162.2 million contract last summer putting the institute in charge of Webb Space Telescope research.

The institute's employees learned of the Hubble decision yesterday afternoon in a hastily called meeting that left many shocked and worried.

"Why would we mothball it?" said astronomer Adam Riess, whose work on exploding stars has relied heavily on the Hubble. Scientifically, he said, the telescope "is still in its prime."

Riess said that in the past year he has discovered seven of the most distant exploding stars, or supernovae, ever recorded.

NASA officials said yesterday that the decision to cancel the final service mission was influenced by Bush's new space initiative, which calls for NASA to complete the International Space Station by 2010.


To meet that deadline, all future shuttle missions must be dedicated to the task, said John Grunsfeld, NASA's chief scientist.

"This was really a tough decision," Grunsfeld conceded. "It was very painful for everyone involved."

He said the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1 also played a significant role in the Hubble decision.

New safety protocols devised after the accident require astronauts to be capable of inspecting the exterior of the spacecraft for damage - such as the damaged wing tiles that caused Columbia's demise - and evacuating the shuttle if necessary.

Missions to the International Space Station meet both safety requirements.

Trips to the Hubble, isolated 350 miles above Earth, would not.


Grunsfeld said the new safety procedures would also require that a second shuttle be fueled and standing by if a Hubble-bound mission got into trouble - a requirement too expensive to fulfill.

In the end, Grunsfeld said, O'Keefe and other top NASA officials concluded that a mission to the remote orbiting observatory "was too risky a trip to make."

Impact on astronomers

The decision to retire Hubble early will be a significant, if temporary, blow to the hundreds of astronomers around the world who rely on the powerful telescope, said Ray Williamson, research professor at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute.

"The outcry from the astronomy community will be tremendous," he said.

Williamson said that if NASA's decision sparks enough protest, Congress could overrule NASA administrators and insist that Hubble be kept in service.


Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and longtime NASA supporter, could not be reached last night.

Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble has won widespread praise from astronomers and laymen alike for its dazzling images and data that helped pry loose many of the universe's secrets.


In recent years, the telescope has helped scientists determine the precise age of the universe (13.7 billion years), discover planets outside our solar system, and chart weather patterns on Mars. By some estimates, Hubble's resume accounts for 33 percent of NASA scientific discoveries.

Hubble's photographs, meanwhile, have become staples everywhere from science classrooms to office computer screen savers.

"You ask any person on the street to name one telescope, and Hubble would be the telescope they name," said astronomer Mario Livio, head of the institute's science division.


Always numbered

But Hubble's days were always numbered.

Named after the late astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, who developed the system scientists use to classify galaxies, it was launched in 1990, with an expected life span of 15 years. But it proved so successful that NASA later extended its projected life to 2010.

The agency has dispatched four missions to upgrade and repair the telescope, including replacement of a flawed mirror that severely hampered its early observations.

The last servicing mission, originally scheduled for 2006, would have installed two new scientific instruments, a sensitive new camera and a spectrograph capable of observing in ultraviolet light.

More importantly, the mission would have replaced all of the spacecraft's gyroscopes. Hubble has six gyros - three operating and three spares. The telescope is down to its last working spare.


The gyros allow the telescope to remain rock-steady in space. Although it can technically operate with only two gyros, its pictures might be too blurry for scientists to use.

The final servicing mission, said Beckwith, would have probably extended the telescope's life by five years or more.

The gyroscopes

Officials at the institute said they're working on ways to extend the life of the gyroscopes through new software and hope to find other tricks to keep the telescope scientifically viable.

NASA officials, meanwhile, hinted that they may try to accelerate the development of Hubble's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Nobody knows precisely when or how the Hubble may ultimately meet its doom. In addition to the gyroscopes, the telescope's batteries also are likely to fail in the next few years, Beckwith said.


Out of orbit by 2012?

The school bus-sized spacecraft will eventually drop from orbit, perhaps about 2012.

Because the plunge won't incinerate the spacecraft, NASA is working on small robots and other mechanisms to steer the spacecraft to a re-entry that would put it over a remote part of the ocean.