TCS Daily


Who'll Save the Hubble?

By Erik Baard - February 5, 2004 12:00 AM

The Bush administration has made it clear that the United States takes the measure of its friendships in the face of mortal risks like its war in Iraq. But even this bold administration has identified a danger it is unwilling to take: flying astronauts to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. Will Europe step into the breach this time?

A flight to the Hubble would be nothing less than a rescue mission to save a priceless achievement of humanity. NASA decreed January 16th that, in the interest of astronaut safety, no more shuttle missions will service the famous orbiting telescope. NASA will permit only missions to the International Space Station, which can offer safe haven to a crew in trouble, under new rules stemming from the Columbia disaster. One could say that the crude political calculus is that deaths in space receive much more publicity than those in war. That policy will consign the Hubble to a watery grave in the Pacific, perhaps as early as 2007. A popular outcry, and the political pressure that flowed from it, has forced NASA to reevaluate its decision.

But the Hubble is a joint project with the European Space Agency. The ESA calls the Hubble "one of the most important science projects ever." Are the revelations from it then a legacy to future generations that Europeans would be proud to hazard their lives to give?

Europe could show greater courage than has been shown on this side of the Atlantic -- it should lead. The ESA website has encouraged visitors to lobby NASA to preserve the Hubble since July, long before the current controversy. Imagine a deeper commitment. Europe can offer to train its astronauts with the Americans and share the risk of a Hubble mission evenly, not as guests or token accents to radio home. European astronauts would fill at least half the crew visiting the Hubble and of another shuttle waiting on emergency standby. If Americans, Britons, Germans, and French can't find common cause, for the moment, amidst the roiling politics of Earth then maybe they can 350 miles above it.

The rewards for working together to save the Hubble would far exceed those of the foundering International Space Station. With Hubble, astronomers have revealed countless galaxies rushing apart like dandelion spores on the wind, and through them shown the accelerating expansion of the universe. They've found the galactic homes of cosmic exotica like quasars and gamma ray bursts, gleaning a greater understanding of them than any generation before the Hubble's 1990 deployment could have dreamt. Hubble photos may be the greatest art of our time, a beauty that inspires us, challenges our sense of self, and simply imparts awe.

"This is not an aging telescope, it's a telescope in its prime," said Ray Villard, spokesman for the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore. "The Hubble has been continually upgraded and has the best camera and best equipment it's ever had. It's fully capable of doing exciting and groundbreaking science."

Just a few weeks ago the Hubble revealed new views of the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune -- our still little understood planetary backyard. And in early March, a new array of Hubble photos will put before us, as a global people, the deepest view of the universe in history -- just 200 million years after the Big Bang. As Einstein showed, space and time are one, so we'll be peering astonishingly close to the moment of creation. Though new large ground based telescopes are planned, and advances in adaptive optics continue to clear up pictures taken through the ripples of our atmosphere, only space based telescopes can see in wavelengths that don't penetrate down even to mountaintops. Without Hubble and other orbiting telescopes (to work alongside it, not replace it) we'll be blind to subtle brushstrokes of nature's most profound murals.

With proper care, the Hubble could continue to deliver these wonders for decades. The Hubble was scheduled for a fourth upgrade next year, to replace dying batteries and gyroscopes and to install $200 million of equipment to view faint objects that escape even today's powerful detectors. A fifth mission at the end of the decade was envisioned, to renew the telescope once again. By then the shuttle fleet may be retired, but perhaps engineers will by that time have developed clever solutions using Russian or private vehicles. Or Hubble missions could serve as test flights for new American and European launchers meant for their moon and Mars programs. The missions could help the ESA astronaut corps get its space legs as well as buy more Hubble telescope time for its own astronomers.

But as NASA says, money isn't the issue holding us back. In fact, it may have to spend as much to safely retire the telescope as to preserve it. A specially designed robot will guide the fiery descent of the 24,000 pound hunk of glass and metal away from things like the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. But there's the very real possibility that Hubble's contributions to our knowledge will be bought with blood. This has been true of missions of discovery from Magellan's circumnavigation to Marie Curie's pioneering studies of radioactivity. But astronauts of any nation are a special breed -- they yearn for both the adventure and their place in history. Most astronauts are military officers -- six of the seven members of the doomed Columbia crew - and countless civilians would clamber for this opportunity.

No doubt there are European's who would find honor in showing courage for this endeavor. And the camaraderie that comes with a noble quest like this could help rebind tattered friendships here on Earth.

Erik Baard is a freelance science writer in New York City. His website is www.baard.com.


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