- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to provide stunning photos of star formations and black holes during its 13 years in orbit.Now the future of the 12.5-ton observatory isn’t quite as clear as the images it provides because the Feb. 1 breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia likely will delay a mission to upgrade Hubble.NASA hasn’t rescheduled the mission to Hubble, and astronomers fear it could be delayed as long as two years.Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say it’s too early to panic. But astronomers warn that Hubble is likely to face more technical glitches and even shut down if there are long space agency delays in returning to the telescope.The servicing mission “will be delayed and there is concern about that. This is the [main] issue right now in the scientific community,” said William Smith, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.NASA had planned to make an astronomical house call to Hubble in November 2004 to replace broken parts and add new equipment to the $2 billion telescope.But the shuttle fleet is grounded while accident investigators continue their inquiry into why Columbia disintegrated during re-entry. Investigators know a hole in the shuttle’s thermal protection tiles allowed scorching gases to penetrate its left wing. They haven’t said what caused the hole or issued recommendations to NASA about measures to improve shuttle safety.Until those recommendations are released, NASA won’t return to flight — or return to the aging Hubble.A Hubble mission became more crucial when one of its six gyroscopes — instruments that balance the device while it takes its stellar images — failed last week. It was the second gyroscope to fail. Three of Hubble’s gyroscopes have to work to keep the telescope from shutting itself down.Hubble did shut down and was temporarily out of service last week when the second gyroscope failed, but the telescope is back in service.NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said last week at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing the space agency will look at scheduling a Hubble mission as soon as it resumes shuttle flights.The agency launched Hubble in 1990. It had a “vision problem” corrected in 1993 and underwent a major overhaul last year to add a new camera that doubled its field of view and improved its ability to capture light. NASA is scheduled to retrieve Hubble in 2010.”I believe NASA cares about Hubble. But the science community is anxious. We are eager to improve Hubble yet again. But I think [the next Hubble mission] will be later rather than sooner,” said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the research center at Johns Hopkins University that manages Hubble and decides which scientists use the telescope.Despite concern about its future, Hubble should have four good gyroscopes until late 2005, based on an analysis by NASA.”The farther we try to push it beyond 2006, the higher the likelihood is that we won’t have three gyroscopes,” said Eric Smith, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program scientist.NASA is trying to determine whether Hubble can operate with just two gyroscopes.Operating an ailing Hubble is in no one’s interest, astronomers say.Hubble’s images generate public interest in science, said Garth Illingsworth, professor of astronomy at the University of California at Santa Cruz and co-developer of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, the device installed last year.

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