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Workaholic Hubble Telescope Will Eventually Burn To Death: Report

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Posted December 9, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope has delivered an amazing near quarter-century of science from all over the universe. Even this year, it’s delivered results to think about: the shrinking Great Red Spot on Jupiter (see picture below), helping New Horizons hunt for flyby targets after Pluto, and enhancing our view of deep space.

The Hubble Space Telescope viewed by the STS-125 shuttle repair crew in 2009. Credit: NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope viewed by the STS-125 shuttle repair crew in 2009. Credit: NASA

But that didn’t come cheap. Four astronaut servicing missions (including one to fix a mirror that was launched with myopia) were required to keep the telescope going since 1990. Hubble has never been more scientifically productive, according to a recent NASA review, but a new article asks if Hubble is destined to die a fiery death when its orbit decays in the next eight to 10 years.

“NASA doesn’t have any official plans for upgrading the telescope, meaning its hardware will grow old and out-of-date in the coming years,” reads the article in Popular Science. “Without assistance, Hubble can’t maintain its orbit forever, and eventually Earth’s gravity will pull the telescope to a fiery death.”

That’s not to say NASA is going to abandon the cosmos — far from it. Besides NASA’s other space telescopes, the successor James Webb Space Telescope is planned to launch in 2018 to chart the universe in other wavelengths. But a review from April warns that ceasing operations of Hubble would not be prudent until James Webb is up, running, and doing its own work productively. That’s a narrow window of time considering Hubble is expected to work well until about 2020.

The Hubble Space Telescope shows the shrinking size of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in this series of images taken between 1995 and 2014. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Hubble Space Telescope shows the shrinking size of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in this series of images taken between 1995 and 2014. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Hubble Space Telescope senior review panel submitted a report on March that overall praised the observatory’s work, and which also talked about its potential longevity. As is, Hubble is expected to work until at least 2020, the review stated. The four science instruments are expected to be more than 85% reliable until 2021, and most “critical subsystems” should exceed 80% until that same year.

The report urges that experienced hands are kept around as the telescope degrades in the coming years, but points out that Hubble has backups that should keep the observatory as a whole going for a while.

There are no single-point failure modes on Hubble that could take down the entire observatory. It has ample redundancy. Planned mitigations for numerous possible sub-system failures or degraded performance have been developed in advance via the project’s Life-Extension Initiatives campaign. Hubble will likely degrade gracefully, with loss or degradation of individual science instrument modes and individual sub-system components.

In NASA’s response to the Senior Review for several missions (including Hubble), the agency said that the telescope has been approved (budgetarily speaking) until 2016, when an incremental review will take place. Further in the future, things get murky.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

The just-tested Orion spacecraft won’t be ready to take crews until the mid-2020s, and so far (according to the Popular Science article) the commercial crew program isn’t expected to include a servicing mission.

According to STS-125 astronaut Michael Good, who currently serves in the Commercial Crew Program, the space agency isn’t looking into the possibility of using private companies to fix Hubble, but he says there’s always a chance that could happen. “One of the reasons we’re doing Commercial Crew is to enable this capability to get into lower Earth orbit,” says Good. “But it’s certainly in the realm of possibility.”

Much can happen in a decade — maybe a surge in robotic intelligence would make an automated mission more possible — but then there is the question of priorities. If NASA chooses to rescue Hubble, are there other science goals the agency would need to push aside to accomplish it? What is best? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments.

Source: Universe Today, written by Elizabeth Howell

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