Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Toil and Trouble

From Space.com :
The White House has eliminated funding for a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope from its 2006 budget request and directed NASA to focus solely on de-orbiting the popular spacecraft at the end of its life, according to government and industry sources.

NASA is debating when and how to announce the change of plans. Sources told Space News that outgoing NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe likely will make the announcement Feb. 7 during the public presentation of the U.S. space agency's 2006 budget request.

That budget request, according to government and industry sources, will not include any money for Hubble servicing but will include some money for a mission to attach a propulsion module to Hubble needed to safely de-orbit the spacecraft with a controlled re-entry into the Pacific Ocean. NASA would not need to launch such a mission before the end of the decade to guide the massive telescope safely into the ocean.

Sources said O'Keefe received his marching orders on Hubble Jan. 13 during a meeting with White House officials to finalize the agency's 2006 budget request. With both robotic and shuttle-based servicing options expected to cost well in excess of $1 billion, sources said, NASA was told it simply could not afford to save Hubble given everything else NASA has on its agenda, including preparing the shuttle fleet to fly again.
The Robotic Rescue Scenario was the only one that stood a chance of being affordable. If the budgetary estimation for that is over $1 Billion, then it is probably cheaper and easier to replace the Hubble with a new, improved model. Hopefully one with it's own de-orbit booster this time, for when it reaches obsolescence.

It's a matter of speculation and conjecture just how much the Hubble's technology owes to US Spy Satellites like Hexagon. The mirror-making equipment of Perkin-Elmer and Kodak was very quickly manufactured for Hubble. Very, very quickly indeed, unless they'd already had some experience making similar items. Of course, the errors in the Hubble's mirror shape meant that US space imaging technology couldn't be accurately assessed at the time, but only a truly paranoid conspiracy theorist would blame NSA sabotage for that. Overconfidence when making just another product like many successful others would be more likely.

All may not be lost for Hubble, however.
...sources, however, said they had not ruled out that the White House and NASA might be canceling the Hubble servicing mission as the opening gambit in the annual struggle that goes on every budget year, fully expecting that Congress will add money to the agency's budget over the course of the year to pay for a mission that has strong public support.
Without knowing the fine details - and I haven't done the extensive research needed - I can't tell whether a ~$1.2 billion rescue mission, or a ~$1.5 billion new telescope + ~$0.5 billion de-orbit mission would be better. But one model of the new telescope is under construction anyway - so buying a second one may be cheaper, as well as better.

This is all assuming the STS (ie the Shuttle) gets fixed adequately, of course. And that's one system that I know needs mending with a new one.

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