NASA budget kills Hubble telescope
US space agency fixes focus firmly on manned exploration.
The Hubble Space Telescope will be scrapped, according to NASA officials who presented the agency's budget for 2006 on 7 February.
No money has been set aside for a vital servicing mission, which would replace the telescope's ageing batteries and gyros, but would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, NASA has given Hubble just US$93 million, with the lion's share earmarked for nudging it out of orbit. NASA engineers are expected to deliver a report in March on how to retrieve the telescope safely.
Democrat senator, Maryland
Hubble's supporters are dismayed by the decision. "I am so disappointed that President Bush has failed to include funding in this year's budget for a servicing mission that would extend the life of the Hubble," says Barbara Mikulski, Democrat senator for Maryland.
"I will fight in the Senate this year to fund a servicing mission to Hubble by 2008," she adds. But time is running out for the telescope's supporters. "Congress will have to make a decision about Hubble very soon, probably no later than the end of March," says Sherwood Boehlert, Republican senator for New York and chairman of the House's science committee.
US House Science Committee
Edging beyond repair
Hubble was scheduled for a fifth upgrade mission last year. But when the Columbia shuttle exploded on 1 February 2003, the shuttle fleet was grounded. Denied servicing missions, the telescope has slowly slipped into disrepair.
A committee of the US National Academies' National Research Council recommended on 8 December 2004 that NASA launch a manned rescue mission to Hubble as soon as possible, ruling out a robotic mission as unworkable. But outgoing NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has always argued that the tighter safety regulations proposed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board make a manned servicing mission too risky. "Based on the evidence, I cannot recommend that we proceed with a shuttle rescue mission," he says.
In fact, NASA software engineers have developed a strategy to keep Hubble focused on the stars for a little longer. "We believe we can operate the observatory on two gyros," says Al Diaz, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. This means that two of the telescope's four remaining gyros, which keep it pointing in the right direction, could be kept as a spares. This might buy Hubble an extra year of life, says Diaz.
Better by far
NASA's purse fared better than those of many other government departments, including energy and basic defence research. The agency's $16.5-billion request was 2.4% higher than last year's final allowance. The largest portion of funding ($4.5 billion) goes to the shuttle, which is expected to return to flight in May or June this year.
The International Space Station, expected to be completed in 2010, will receive $1.9 billion. NASA hopes that the station can be used for more research on the health effects of arduous manned missions.
The budget also grants $372 million (a 19% increase) to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is seen by many as Hubble's successor and is expected to launch in August 2011.
But the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, a craft that would have relied on nuclear propulsion, has effectively been cancelled. NASA officials now say that the orbiter is just too ambitious, and will not be realized by the proposed 2015 launch date.
O'Keefe has been plagued by the quandary over Hubble, and formally resigned from NASA on 13 December 2004. He now expects to leave the agency within days; he will begin his job as chancellor of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, on 21 February. "I look forward to getting there as fast as humanly possible," he says.