WASHINGTON – The National Academy of Sciences questioned NASA’s plans to use robots to rescue the Hubble space telescope, saying Wednesday that the space agency should rely on a manned mission to do the job instead.
The report was welcomed in Maryland, by the agencies that oversee operation of the Hubble and by the scientists who are developing components for just such a robotic mission, who said they are confident there will be work for them, regardless of the type of mission.
“This is great news for Maryland,” said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The committee has said they feel the Hubble is vital.”
Beckwith said that both the committee and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are clearly in favor of saving the 14-year-old telescope, despite the difference in their approaches.
“This is a positive sign,” he said.
Project leaders at the University of Maryland’s Space Systems Laboratory, where components for the robotic mission are being developed, were not worried by the committee’s call for a manned mission.
“It’s a recommendation, not a policy directive,” said David Akin, director of the College Park-based program.
“(NASA Administrator Sean) O’Keefe has said there are benefits beyond Hubble with robotic technology. They’re only looking at Hubble,” he said of the report by a National Academy of Sciences’ committee on extending the life of the Hubble telescope.
Akin’s sentiment was echoed by NASA officials, who said late Wednesday that development work on robotic systems to service Hubble would proceed while the committee report was evaluated.
“The administrator has not ruled out a space shuttle mission to Hubble,” said NASA spokesman Robert “Doc” Mirelson. “But you can’t stop-start this (robotics) research.”
Mirelson said that O’Keefe decided in January to halt future space shuttle missions to service the Hubble. The decision followed the February 2003 shuttle Columbia crash and subsequent recommendations by a panel investigating the crash that missions be halted.
But the telescope needs to be serviced by mid-2007 in order to ensure its operation for another five to six years, NASA said. Without that mission, the Hubble could die a premature death, although Mirelson said it is difficult to predict when.
Under mounting pressure from scientists, lawmakers and the public to save the popular telescope, NASA began to look for other ways to service it, announcing in April that it would use a robotic mission.
But members of the National Academies’ committee said Wednesday that a robotic mission might not be ready in time to service the Hubble and even if it is, it could critically damage the telescope.
“NASA’s current planned robotic mission is significantly more technologically risky, so a robotic mission should be pursued only for the eventual removal of the Hubble telescope from orbit, not for an attempt to upgrade,” committee chair Louis J. Lanzerotti said in a prepared statement.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., lauded the report. She said she will hold hearings in February on the future of Hubble that will examine the positions of both NASA and the National Academy of Sciences.
Meantime, NASA says it will move forward with its existing plans.
“Plans for a robotic mission will continue,” Mirelson said. “Based on one report, you can’t stop your progress.”
-30- CNS 12-08-04