– Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON – NASA is racing to complete plans to try to rescue its prized Hubble Space Telescope before its failing batteries give out, leaving it a useless, possibly dangerous piece of expensive space junk.

Private contractors’ proposals for a robotic repair mission are due Friday. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe is to make a go-no-go decision in August, and the first contracts must be let by the end of the year if Hubble is to be saved, NASA officials told a committee of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday.

Astronomers were devastated in January when O’Keefe canceled plans to send astronauts aboard a space shuttle to fix the 14-year-old telescope. He said no shuttle could be spared for a Hubble mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Responding to worldwide criticism, O’Keefe agreed in March to consider a robotic rescue attempt. An unmanned spacecraft would have to be launched within the next three years to replace Hubble’s batteries and the gyroscopes that keep it stable.

NASA also hopes to install a new, more powerful camera to enable Hubble to build on its unmatched record of astronomical discoveries, such as the birth of stars, the accelerated expansion of the universe and the most distant galaxies ever observed. The goal is to extend the telescope’s life another three to five years.

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“I think it’s going to be doable,” Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, NASA’s associate director for space exploration, told the academy committee. But “time is of the essence,” said Steve Isakowitz, the space agency’s comptroller.

Gregory Harbaugh, an astronaut who replaced a failed guidance system on Hubble in 1997, cautioned that a robotic repair mission would be tricky. “Sometimes things a human being can do become a significant challenge for a robot,” he said.

Harbaugh said he had great difficulty installing new cables on Hubble, using the thick gloves he needed in the bitter cold of a space walk. “It gave me fits,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable turning a robot on it.”

Because of these problems, the academy committee sent a letter to O’Keefe on Tuesday urging him to keep the option of sending astronauts to repair Hubble open for another year, calling Hubble “arguably the most important telescope in history.”

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NASA’s current plan calls for an unmanned spaceship to rendezvous with Hubble in orbit by December 2007, grab it with a robotic arm and attach itself to the back end of the telescope. The robot would unscrew various bolts, remove failing parts and substitute good equipment.

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When the job is done, most of the rescue craft would be jettisoned, but a module would remain attached to Hubble to guide it down into the ocean when its useful life ends. The space agency doesn’t want to take a chance that the telescope would kill someone if it plunged to Earth uncontrolled.

NASA hasn’t determined the price of a rescue mission. But one outside estimate predicted it would take about $1.3 billion just to develop the unmanned spaceship and robotic arm.

No money has been approved for the project yet, Isakowitz said, but it could be reassigned from other programs.

One advantage of the plan, Steidle said, is it gives the space agency a head start on President Bush’s ambitious proposal to send robots, and eventually people, back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

The Hubble mission would use automated rendezvous and spacecraft-docking maneuvers that would “also be useful for the moon and Mars robotic operation,” Steidle said. “This is the best demonstration we could possibly do.”

For more information on the Web, go to hubble.gsfc.nasa.gov



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-13-04 1734EDT



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