Surprise! NASA Gets Two ‘Free’ Hubble-like Space Telescopes

by Nancy Atkinson on June 4, 2012

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Could two unused satellites given to NASA help resurrect the proposed WFIRST mission? Credit: NASA

NASA will be getting two unused space surveillance satellites from the US’s National Reconnaissance Office, which could possibly be used to search for dark energy. In articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times, NASA and NRO officials revealed the two unused and not-fully-built satellites are available for NASA to use as they see fit. While the satellites don’t have astronomical instruments and are still in a warehouse, they do have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like Hubble, with a wider field of view and a maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain better-focused images.

“This is a total game changer,” said David N. Spergel of Princeton, quoted in the New York Times, who is co-chairman of a committee on astronomy and astrophysics for the National Academy of Sciences.

Reportedly, the NRO contacted NASA in 2011 about the two spy satellites. Since taking over as head of the NASA Science Directorate early this year, former Hubble repairman John Grunsfeld has been working with scientists and other NASA officials to quietly study the possibility of using the two satellites as “repurposed telescopes.”

Originally designed to look at Earth for surveillance, the two telescopes could be turned to look at the heavens instead, as the National Reconnaissance Office said they no longer needed them for spy missions. Why two such spy telescopes were under construction and then scrapped is not clear.

Described as not fully built and some parts being in “bits and pieces,” NASA will have to decide on how they should be used, build additional instruments, launch them, and support the operations.

Reportedly, Grunsfeld and his secret team have come up with a plan to turn one of the telescopes to investigate the mysterious dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

NASA officials stressed that they do not have a program or a budget to launch even one telescope at the moment, and that at the very earliest, under favorable budgets, it would be 2020 before even one of the two gifted telescopes could be ready for a mission.

The Washington Post asked Grunsfeld whether anyone at NASA was popping champagne, and he answered, “We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight.”

In the latest decadal survey the astronomical community had suggested a dark energy telescope as its top priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the lack of funding – along with huge cost overruns by the James Webb Space Telescope — made it seem like such a telescope would be an impossibility.

The two telescopes could possibly be used for the proposed WFIRST project, which seemingly was not going anywhere with the latest budget proposal or as a ‘scout’ for the JWST.

“It would be a great discovery telescope for where Webb should look in addition to doing the work on dark energy,” Spergel said in the Washington Post.

Astronomers will be discussing the possibilities at a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences held on today in Washington, D.C. and how they could turn the two gifted telescopes into official missions.

Read more in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

nafin June 4, 2012 at 5:46 PM

Why build one when you can have two for twice the price?

gopher652003 June 4, 2012 at 5:50 PM

“First rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price?”

I love that line;).

Hematite June 4, 2012 at 6:20 PM

This is a great opportunity that we all hope NASA will use wisely.

I wonder just what the DOD folks have now that made those two spy sats obsolete?

Mastercope June 4, 2012 at 6:28 PM

Dragonfly’s and hummingbirds,,,,

MarcoMD June 4, 2012 at 6:45 PM

Ok, let me get this straight. In 1962, President Kennedy made a speech that got us going to the Moon. Most of what we needed didn’t exist. Seven years later, Neil and Buzz are doing the moonwalk long before Michael Jackson. Now, NASA is given two satellites. Granted, they are not completed, but most of the hard parts are. Nothing needs to be invented, just built. And it will be 8 YEARS before they might get one up! Have we lost a bit of the dream and drive somewhere along the way?

Aaron Glafenhein June 4, 2012 at 7:50 PM

although a good portion of the satelite is complete there are a number of instruments that will still have to be designed from scratch. With spacecraft, there are no standard off-the-shelf instruments so any astronomy instruments (like a spectrometer) will have to be custom made. these take a long time eventhough many have been made for other satellites. Because of specific mission requirements and harsh environments it isnt practical to make “all purpose” or “General use” hardware. weight, geometry and power requirements have a lot to do with it as well as how the hardware affects the thermal, structural and stability of the satellite as a whole. its a lot more complex then it initially seems. Since they arent starting from scratch it makes it more difficult since the instruments were not in the original plan whne the sattelite was designed.

MarcoMD June 4, 2012 at 8:02 PM

I understand all of that and I am fully aware of it. However, building a few pieces in no way compares to what it took to go from Alan Shephard’s flight to Apollo 11. There was science that needed to be discovered, not to mention heroic level engineering, and just plain old heroics. And we did it in seven years. So, eight years to customize a few pieces, and then use a launch system (rocket, facility, flight control team, established communications, etc.) that we have down to almost a routine, would be laughable if it were not so sad.

Torbjörn Larsson June 4, 2012 at 8:48 PM

These instruments are a lot more complex than Apollo crafts, and they have to be tested to an exacting standard. The project time sounds like the nominal time, so I don’t see why you question it especially.

The Apollo project was something else: throw money and personnel at a problem, make parallel efforts in a staggered manner which tests out the envelope as you set the goal, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t see why anyone would think of using it as a comparison to developing experiments.*

—————
* The only time I can think of a parallel is the HUGO vs Venter race to sequence the human genome. They ended up doing it in a lot less time than initially projected because of method changes along the way, akin to Apollo changing the mission orbits and staging.

MarcoMD June 5, 2012 at 1:13 AM

You make my point. I am not assailing NASA, though maybe I am some of the people who work there now. Yes, they don’t have the budget they once did, which is sad. Even at its peak, the NASA programs of the 1960s were cheap compared to the overall budget. Ok, telescope parts are precise and so on. The mirrors and a good bit of the rest of the satellites are already built. Want to talk exacting work, try building a capsule for three men to survive in for ten days. Beats a telescope every time. Oh, just to make it harder, no one had ever done it. We have been flying the HST and others for sometime. As for off the shelf, there is a lot more of that than people know. I work for Lockheed Martin. The space folks are still using parts first built decades ago and purchased in bulk. So, we have two telescope satellites which are some percentage greater than 50% built and it will take a MINIMUM of eight years to fly them. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were all first time missions using technolgy that we had to develop along the way and each mission was a never done before mission. Call it drive, call it will, call it competition, call it whatever you will. I call the length of time to get those two satellites sad. No amount ofwhining about making new parts or budgets or anything else changes the fact that it is sad and pathetic, with plenty of blame to go around for all. In case anyone is wondering, I blame political leaders the most.

lcrowell June 5, 2012 at 1:14 PM

I think one comparison might be between vacuum tube technology, or even transistor circuits with respect to integrated circuits and chips. The old stuff you could access fairly readily. If you have some old fashioned electronic device you can modify or repair it fairly readily. A computer or flat screen TV and other devices are much harder to work on or modify. It is worth noting that in our age few devices are actually repaired any more. There is a level of complexity in our age which is different from the Apollo-Saturn days.

The space craft we put in space, from the MSL heading to Mars to the upcoming JWST could be compared to i-Devices, minisupercomputers, etc compared to the Apollo-Saturn rocket which could be compared to an old RCA 1960 circa TV. Yet back then we put astronauts on the moon and today we are not able to. Yet with today’s spacecraft we are observing data on the inflationary period of the universe and charting the details of the Saturnian system.

LC

Aaron Glafenhein June 5, 2012 at 2:17 PM

I agree. the bigest difference now is money. NASA has a small fraction of the budget it used to (adjusted for inflation) and its spred over a much broader scope. we could do it all again if we only had the funding and support

Aerandir90 June 4, 2012 at 8:04 PM

Its like being really cash stripped in your life and then being gifted a car without an engine. Its not of much use until you purchase and install an engine but you need to take the time and money to do so. And unfortunately money doesn’t come easy for NASA. Sad but true.

Not too knowledgeable about space telescopes but 8 years sounds like a nominal time period from conception to launch. As Aaron Glafenhein pointed out, these things require unique specs due to environment and mission constraints, so even if a lot of hardware exists already, you still have to go through the design and testing of instruments etc that can be compatible with what hardware you’ve been given.

delphinus100 June 4, 2012 at 10:25 PM

And there’s no element of a geopolitical ‘race’ here. That’s what drove Apollo. Without the goal of before the decade is out’ and before the Soviets, a different, slower approach to reaching the Moon would likely have been taken. Money was almost no object at that time.

It most assuredly is now.

Even now, ultimately returning to the Moon will hopefully (and should) be dictated by the most cost-effective method, even if it’s not the fastest. (though as long as there’s SLS, I won’t completely believe that we’ve let go of the Apollo mentality…)

Aaron Glafenhein June 4, 2012 at 7:51 PM

I’ll take one… now if someone is giving away free rockets…

Aerandir90 June 4, 2012 at 8:11 PM

One side of me sees this as a great opportunity for those shelved missions to be brought back to life. The cynical side of me sees future missions using this hardware being overwhelmed with delays and cost overruns, i.e. business as usual.

lcrowell June 4, 2012 at 9:57 PM

There are aspects to this which make this tough. The mirrors have coatings or ¼ wave stacks designed to work with light reflecting off the Earth. The instrumentation has to be configured for that. The design-mission configuration for these instruments has largely been determined from their design as recon-sats. Nothing of course is impossible, and it would be best if these could be put to use in the IR or UV band. The WFIRST telescopes were meant to survey on the .7 to 2.4 ? wavelengths. With adaptive optics there is little point in putting optical (.4 to 7.?) wavelength telescopes in orbit.

LC

delphinus100 June 4, 2012 at 10:18 PM

I smell Falcon Heavy payloads…if there’s the money to do the necessary re-working of these instruments, of course.

TerryG June 5, 2012 at 2:26 AM

Yes please. FH flights might have already reached double digits by 2020.

Aqua4U June 4, 2012 at 10:49 PM

Nice! I recycle too… and applaud this effort! Last year I posted a comment about reusing on-orbit resources. That is to say – launching robotic repair missions to repair and upgrade defunct on-orbit spy satellite assets and return them to usefulness or retask them for scientific observations. That could still happen as the mission price(s) continue to drop!

Of course, as mentioned above by lcrowell, the optics of spy satellites are typically optimized for specific frequencies and are either figured and coated or coated specifically for a predetermined instrument bandwidth. But that is not necessarily a show stopper. What it means is that yes, the sensor bandwidth may be limited, but useful data could no doubt still be mined from the data set.

Now to retask an unused KH-11or later spy satellite BEFORE it is launched, is a much simpler task in comparison. I LIKE!

mike davey June 4, 2012 at 10:56 PM

If NASA doesn’t want them I’ll take one.

adamhorse77 June 5, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Isn’t this sad that the US’s National Reconnaissance Office’s trash is NASA’s treasure? What does that say about the size of the budget going to defense (the NRO is part of the Department of Defense). Congress doesn’t give a hoot about science or space exploration, and while we know the GOP is a bust since all of them think we popped into existance one day by the hand of an old beared man in the sky who is perfect but oops flooded the Earth, put to many teeth in the human mouth and gave men nipples for no reason (I digress). Shouldn’t there be more support from the Democrats who actualy have a few IQ points on most of the GOP? Carl Sagan would be so sad to see the state of NASA’s budget and the lack of enthusiasm for space exploration, and the congressional failure to do something that doesn’t put a buck in their pocket. I can’t speak for anyone else but I think the NRO’s “gift” is just offensive, as if they’re waiving their oversized budget in NASA’s poor face.

Bruce Collie June 6, 2012 at 11:05 AM

This shows the massive distortion in government spending in the US. The military in the US get over $700 billion per year, which is about 40% of the worlds military spending. The NRO even gets about the same budget as NASA! Most of this spending has no direct benefit to Amercians, apart from cheaper fuel at the pumps, most money is profits for the large corporations. Diverting even 5% of this spending to NASA would make a massive difference, and has been shown in the past would have an impact on normal Americans down the line.

Bruce Collie June 6, 2012 at 11:05 AM

This shows the massive distortion in government spending in the US. The military in the US get over $700 billion per year, which is about 40% of the worlds military spending. The NRO even gets about the same budget as NASA! Most of this spending has no direct benefit to Amercians, apart from cheaper fuel at the pumps, most money is profits for the large corporations. Diverting even 5% of this spending to NASA would make a massive difference, and has been shown in the past would have an impact on normal Americans down the line.

Skipdallas1 June 5, 2012 at 1:48 PM

It’s a scary thought that the NRO has such capacity for reconnaissance that they are giving away satellites. Pro-Hint: When you are outside, do not look up if you are a wanted felon! :-)

magnus.nyborg June 5, 2012 at 9:05 PM

Darn, I had dibs on one of those.

ITSRUF June 6, 2012 at 12:15 AM

To bad the NRO doesn’t have a couple “extra” X-37b’s lying around that NASA could use!

ITSRUF June 6, 2012 at 12:20 AM

The big story here (as stated earlier in this thread) is that NASA has to scrape together what other gov agencies consider “extra” and superfluous.

Dav_Daddy June 5, 2012 at 1:51 AM

Do you remember when they first launched Hubble? Difference is there is no shuttle for a repair mission this time around. I’d just as soon they take their time & do it right.

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