It hardly bears mentioning that the orbiting Hubble Space Telescopeis one of the most extraordinarily successful scientificinstruments of all time. Since 1993, when the telescope’s flawedmirror was set right by a set of custom-fit corrective lenses, theHubble has captured one spectacular image after another ofeverything from the familiar planets of the solar system to quasarsand galaxies at the edge of the visible universe and thanksto four repair missions by shuttle-riding astronauts, the telescopehas managed to survive the harsh environment of orbital space farlonger than anyone could have imagined. All good things must come to an end, though. The shuttle is flyingno more, and within the next couple of years, the aging telescopewill gradually wink out too.
It will be a terrible loss to science,and it kind of makes you wish someone had a spare Hubble secretlystashed away, just waiting to be unpacked and sent into orbit.That’s what would happen in the Hollywood version, anyway. (PHOTOS: Deep-Space Photos: Hubble’s Greatest Hits) But it turns out that it is happening in real life too. TheNational Science Foundation has just revealed the existence of notone but two pristine, Hubble-class space telescopes still in theiroriginal wrappings in a warehouse in Rochester, N.Y. The pair wasoriginally built for the National Reconnaissance Office , the agency in charge of spy satellites, to look down at Earthrather than up into space. But the NRO has moved on to bigger andbetter instruments, and decided to hand the telescopes over.
“Itjust blew me away when I heard about this,” says Princetonastrophysicist David Spergel, a member of the National Academy ofScience’s Committee on Astrophysics and Astronomy. “I knew nothingabout it.” The unexpected gift has sent NASA and the astronomical community,both of which have learned to live with smaller budgets and lowerexpectations in recent years, into a mild state of shock. It’s notclear what they’ll do with this astonishing gift and indeed,even among the handful of scientists who have been in on thesecret, there’s only a general consensus on how they might use justone of the telescopes, never mind both. “Everyone I’ve talked to,”says Spergel, “has said we should follow the Decadal Survey.” Thatis the once-a-decade report astronomers present to NASA with a wishlist of space missions, ranked in order of importance establishing a sort of united front that relieves the space agencyof having to decide on its own what science projects are the mostcrucial. (VIDEO: The Final Shuttle to Hubble) In the most recent Decadal Survey , issued in 2010, the astronomers asked for a new space telescopesensitive to the infrared light that comes from newborn galaxiesand planets, and with a much wider field of view than Hubble’ssharp but narrow eye. Genuine HTC Car Charger
This proposed scope, known as WFIRST (the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope) , would also study dark energy and matter, but in order to savemoney, it would be less than half of Hubble’s size. With the newsof the free telescopes, however, astronomers are talking about thepossibility of building a “WFIRST-plus.” The basic scope mirrors, mountings, enclosure that they’ll be getting fromthe NRO makes up somewhere between one-third and one-half the costof the finished product; the rest goes to the instruments thatprocess and record cosmic light. “We can do it better, and potentially cheaper, because we don’tneed to buy the telescope,” says Spergel. “What’s not clear is, Doyou just have the original infrared camera, or do you takeadvantage of this opportunity to add, say, a coronagraph?” Thatwould be a big deal, since the job of a coronagraph is to block outthe blazing light of a star to let the much dimmer light of aplanet shine through. China USB Connector Kit
With it, says Paul Hertz, NASA’s director ofastrophysics, the telescope could capture images of Jupiter-likeplanets around nearby stars and possibly Earth-like planets as well an achievement astronomers thought wouldn’t be possibleuntil late in the 2020s. (MORE: Happy Birthday, Hubble! A Stunning New Picture for a SpecialDay) But while the free scopes are essentially there for the taking,there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The cost of adaptingcameras and other instruments to the rest of the components, thenlaunching the whole thing and operating it for years won’t beinsignificant. “A 50% discount still means you have to come up withthe other 50%,” says Spergel. Still, getting the new scope intospace should at least be cheaper than it was to launch the Hubble.”Hubble,” he says, “is really a 1960s-era telescope. China USB Car Charger Adaptor
It’s veryheavy and fairly long. This one will be lighter and smaller.” Evenwith drastic upgrades, Hertz says, it’s plausible that it wouldcost just $1 billion to adapt and launch the proposed WFIRST an absurdly low figure for such a powerful machine. As for the second free telescope, the consensus so far, saysSpergel, is that “we wait until sometime in the 2020s to decidewhat to do with it.” At the moment, the James Webb Space Telescope , the Hubble’s official successor, is eating up the lion’s share ofNASA’s science budget, and even at a discount, there’s no way theagency can move ahead with both of the unexpected freebies at once. All these ideas are preliminary, however.
“A few of us begandiscussing this quietly when we first learned about it,” saysSpergel, “and now we’ll be talking to the wider community.” It willtake a while, he says, before there’s a concrete plan on how tomove forward. Until that happens, astronomers will just enjoy theimprobable fact that they’ve been given two shiny, brand-new toysto play with and Christmas is still half a year away. PHOTOS: The Otherworldly Work of West Virginia’s Green Bank RadioTelescope PHOTOS: A Brief History of the Hubble Space Telescope.