Workaholic Hubble Telescope Will Eventually Burn To Death: Report

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.

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“NASA doesn’t have any official plans for upgrading the telescope, meaning its hardware will grow old and out-of-date in the coming years,” reads the article in Popular Science.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.

Watch the James Webb Telescope Being Built Via “Webb-cam”

Want to watch the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope come together? NASA has set up a webcam – in this case a “Webb-cam” — for anyone to track the progress JWST inside a clean room at Goddard Space Flight Center. Recently, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was delivered and it will be integrated into the science instrument payload. Two cameras show the action, although the cameras will show just screen shots that are updated once every minute.

When is the best time to watch? The clean room is generally occupied Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. PDT (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EDT).

Click the image above for access to the Webb-cams, or visit the Webb-cam website.

Of the James Webb Space Telescope’s four science instruments, only MIRI can see light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This unique capability will allow the Webb telescope to study physical processes occurring in the cosmos that the other Webb instruments cannot see.

MIRI’s sensitive detectors will allow it to make unique observations of many things, including the light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars within our own Milky Way, and the formation of planets around stars other than our own, as well as planets, comets and the outermost debris disk in our own solar system.

Meet MIRI, Infrared Camera for Webb Telescope

Our friend Will Gater from the BBC’s Sky At Night Magazine had the chance to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility that is building the Mid-Infrared Instrument on the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope. You’ll meet MIRI inside clean room at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, before it’s packaged up and sent over to NASA Goddard in the US and hear from some of the scientists involved in the project. MIRI is expected to make important contributions to all four of the primary science themes for JWST: 1.) discovery of the “first light”; 2.) assembly of galaxies: history of star formation, growth of black holes, production of heavy elements; 3.) how stars and planetary systems form; and 4.) evolution of planetary systems and conditions for life.

Budget Axe to Gore America’s Future Exploration of Mars and Search for Martian Life

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America’s hugely successful Mars Exploration program is apparently about to be gutted by Obama Administration officials wielding a hefty budget axe in Washington, D.C. Consequently, Russia has been invited to join the program to replace American science instruments and rockets being scrapped.

NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget is due to be announced on Monday, February 13 and its widely reported that the Mars science mission budget will be cut nearly in half as part of a significant decline in funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The proposed deep slash to the Mars exploration budget would kill NASA’s participation in two new missions dubbed “ExoMars” set to launch in 2016 and 2018 as a joint collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA/NASA partnership would have dispatched the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane, a potential signature for microbial life, and an advanced Astrobiology rover to drill deeper into the surface in 2018. These ambitious missions had the best chance yet to determine if Life ever evolved on Mars.

The 2016 and 2018 ExoMars probes were designed to look for evidence of life on Mars and set the stage for follow on missions to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the Red Planet’s surface and eventually land humans on Mars.

Joint ESA/NASA ExoMars Exploration Missions
- Planned 2016 Orbiter and 2018 Rover. NASA participation will be scrapped due to slashed NASA funding by the Obama Admnistartion. Credit: ESA

The proposed Mars budget cuts will obliterate these top priority science goals for NASA.

The BBC reports that “ a public announcement by NASA of its withdrawal from the ExoMars program will probably come once President Obama’s 2013 Federal Budget Request is submitted.”

A Feb. 9 article in ScienceInsider, a publication of the journal Science, states that “President Barack Obama will propose a $300 million cut in NASA’s planetary science programs as part of his 2013 request for the agency.”

This would amount to a 20% cut from $1.5 Billion in 2012 to $1.2 Billion in 2013. The bulk of that reduction is aimed squarely at purposefully eliminating the ExoMars program. And further deep cuts are planned in coming years !

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter would search for atmospheric methane at Mars. NASA instruments to be deleted as a result of budget cuts. Credit: ESA

The Mars budget of about $580 million this year would be radically reduced by over $200 million, thereby necessitating the end of NASA’s participation in ExoMars. These cuts will have a devastating impact on American scientists and engineers working on Mars missions.

The fallout from the looming science funding cuts also caused one longtime and top NASA manager to resign.

According to ScienceInsider, Ed Weiler, NASA’s science mission chief, says he “quit NASA Over Cuts to Mars Program.”

“The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA,” said Ed Weiler to ScienceInsider.

“In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?”

“This is not about the science mission directorate, this is not even about NASA. This is about the country. We are the only country in the world that has demonstrated the capability to land anything on Mars. How can we allow that to be undermined?”

Weiler’s resignation from NASA on Sept. 30, 2011 was sudden and quick, virtually from one day to the next. And it came shortly after the successful launch of NASA’s GRAIL lunar probes, when I spoke to Weiler about Mars and NASA’s Planetary Science missions and the gloomy future outlook. Read my earlier Universe Today story about Weiler’s retirement.

Ed Weiler was the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and his distinguished career spanned almost 33 years.

The dire wrangling over NASA’s 2013 budget has been ongoing for many months and some of the funding reductions had already leaked out. For example NASA had already notified ESA that the US could not provide funding for the Atlas V launchers in 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, Weiler and other NASA managers told me the 2018 mission was de-scoped from two surface rovers down to just one to try and save the Mars mission program.

ESA is now inviting Russian participation to replace the total American pullout, which will devastate the future of Red Planet science in the US. American scientists and science instruments would be deleted from the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.

The only approved US mission to Mars is the MAVEN orbiter due to blastoff in 2013 – and there are NO cameras aboard MAVEN.

Three Generations of US Mars Rovers - 4th Generation ExoMars rover to be Axed by NASA budget cuts.

NASA is caught in an inescapable squeeze between rising costs for ongoing and ambitious new missions and an extremely tough Federal budget environment with politicians of both political affiliations looking to cut what they can to rein in the deficit, no matter the consequences of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”.

NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing wrote; “Details of the FY 2013 NASA budget are starting to trickle out. One of the most prominent changes will be the substantial cut to planetary science at SMD [NASA’s Science Mission Directorate]. At the same time, the agency has to eat $1 billion in Webb telescope overruns – half of which will come out of SMD.”

The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has skyrocketed to $8.7 Billion.

To pay for JWST, NASA is being forced to gut the Mars program and other science missions funded by the same Science Mission Directorate that in the past and present has stirred the public with a mindboggling payoff of astounding science results from many missions that completely reshaped our concept of humankinds place in the Universe.

Meanwhile, China’s space program is rapidly expanding and employing more and more people. China’s scientific and technological prowess and patent applications are increasing and contributing to their fast growing economy as American breakthroughs and capabilities are diminishing.

Under the budget cutting scenario of no vision, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover will be America’s last Mars rover for a long, long time. Curiosity will thus be the third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th generation to be Axed !

James Webb Mirrors Pass Deep-Freeze Exams

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The last of the 21 mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope have come out of deep freeze – literally! – and are now approved for space operations, a major milestone in the development of the next generation telescope that’s being hailed as the “successor to Hubble.”

“The mirror completion means we can build a large, deployable telescope for space,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and Webb program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “We have proven real hardware will perform to the requirements of the mission.”

The all-important mirrors for the Webb telescope had to be cryogenically tested to make sure they could withstand the rigors and extreme low temperatures necessary for operating in space. To achieve this, they were cooled to temperatures of -387F (-233C) at the X-ray and Cryogenic Test Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center.

When in actual use, the mirrors will be kept at such low temperatures so as not to interfere with deep-space infrared observations with their own heat signatures.

JWST engineers anticipate that, with such drastic cooling, the mirrors will change shape. The testing proved that the mirrors would achieve the shapes needed to still perform exactly as expected.

“This testing ensures the mirrors will focus crisply in space, which will allow us to see new wonders in our universe,” said Helen Cole, project manager for Webb Telescope mirror activities.

Planned for launch in 2018, the JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of the Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on Earthlike planets.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope here.

Good and Bad News Comes With NASA’s 2012 Budget

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On November 14, President Obama signed an Appropriations bill that solidified NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2012. The space agency will get $17.8 billion. That’s $648 million less than last year’s funding and $924 million below what the President had asked for. But it’s still better than the $16.8 billion proposed earlier this year by the House of Representatives.

To most people, $17.8 billion is a huge amount of money. And it absolutely is, but not when you’re  NASA and have multiple programs and missions to fund. So where does it all go?

The bill highlights three major items when it comes to NASA’s budget. Of its total funding, $3.8 billion is set aside for Space Exploration. This includes research and development of the the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System, hopefully keeping both programs on schedule.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Credit: NASA.

$4.2 billion has been allocated for Space Operations. This includes funds to tie up the loose ends of the Space Shuttle program, the end of which is expected to save more than $1 billion. The Space Operations budget, however, is $1.3 billion below last year’s level.

Coming to a very popular topic, the bill dedicates $5.1 billion to NASA Science Programs, a division that includes the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST has garnered much attention this year, usually for being badly behind schedule and cripplingly over budget. Of the funding dedicated to Science Programs, $530 million is directed to the JWST project.

There’s a little problem hidden in this item in the bill. The $5.1 billion is just over the $150 million funding the Science Programs got last year. With $380 million on top of that increased promised to the JWST, where’s the money coming from? Other programs. As the bill says, “the agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by making commensurate reductions in other programs.” NASA will get the money for the telescope the only place it can – by cutting other programs.

This means potential major cuts to planetary programs since NASA’s manned program traditionally gets the most money. And understandably so. Aside from the real space enthusiasts who track robotic missions with gusto, an astronaut provides a great human link to space for the everyman. So even without an active manned program, it’s highly unlikely NASA will find the funds for the JWST program in its manned budget.

Planetary missions will likely take the hit. And a funding cut now could seriously affect NASA’s long range plans, such as its planned missions to Mars through 2020. Prospective missions to Europa will face difficulties too, a real shame since liquid water was recently discovered under the icy surface of that Jovian moon.

Unfortunately, NASA’s budget just can’t match its goals. For the near future, NASA will have to do what it can with what it’s got. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in reference to the budget the House of Representatives originally proposed in February, it “requires us to live within our means so we can invest in our future.” Let’s all hope for some wise investing on NASA’s part.

Sources: “Summary: Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations “Mini-Bus”, “2012 Budget is Set” from the Planetary Society.

Book Review: A Dictionary of the Space Age

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Writing a dictionary is not the same as writing a novel. While it might seem difficult to mess up a dictionary, even one with terminology that is as complicated as that used within the space industry – getting it right can be challenging. For those that follow space flight having such a dictionary can be invaluable. While A Dictionary of the Space Age does meet the basic requirements easily it fails somewhat in terms of its comprehensiveness.

When normal folks, even space enthusiasts watch launches and other space-related events (EVAs, dockings, landings and such) there are so many acronyms and jargon thrown about – that it is extremely hard to follow. With A Dictionary of the Space Age on hand, one can simply thumb through and find out exactly what is being said, making it both easier to follow along and making the endeavor being witnessed far more inclusive. That is as long if you are only looking for the most general of terms. The book is far from complete – but given the complex nature of the topic – this might not have been possible.

Crewed, unmanned, military space efforts and satellites – all have key terms addressed within the pages of this book.

The book is published by The Johns Hopkins University Press and was compiled and written by aerospace expert Paul Dickson. One can purchase the book on the secondary market (Amazon.com) for around $12 (new for around $25). The dictionary also has a Kindle edition which is available for $37.76. Dickson’s previous works on space flight is Sputnik: The Shock of the Century.

Weighing in at 288 pages, the book briefly covers the primary terms used within the space community. In short, if you are interested in learning more about space flight – or wish to do so – this is a good book for you.

James Webb Space Telescope Nearing Completion

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The James Webb Space Telescope or JWST has long been touted as the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope. The telescope is considered to be the one of the most ambitious space science projects ever undertaken – this complexity may be its downfall. Cost overruns now threaten the project with cancellation. Despite these challenges, the telescope is getting closer to completion. As it stands now, the telescope has served as a technical classroom on the intricacies involved with such a complex project. It has also served to develop new technologies that are used by average citizens in their daily lives.

Although compared to Hubble, the two telescopes are dissimilar in a number of ways. The JWST is three times as powerful as Hubble in its infrared capabilities. JWST’s primary mirror is 21.3 feet across (this provides about seven times the amount of collecting power that Hubble currently employs).

The JWST’s mirrors were polished using computer modeling guides that allowed engineers to predict that they will enter into the proper alignment when in space. Each of the mirrors on the JWST has been smoothed down to within 1/1000th the thickness of a human hair. The JWST traveled to points across the country to assemble and test the JWST’s various components.

Eventually the mirrors were then sent to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Once there they measured how the mirrors reacted at extremely cold temperatures. With these tests complete, the mirrors were given a thin layer of gold. Gold is very efficient when it comes to reflecting light in the infrared spectrum toward the JWST’s sensors.

A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

The telescope’s array of mirrors is comprised of beryllium, which produces a lightweight and more stable form of glass. The JWST requires lightweight yet strong mirrors so that they can retain their shape in the extreme environment of space. These mirrors have to be able to function perfectly in temperatures reaching minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit.

After all of this is done, still more tests await the telescope. It will be placed into the same vacuum chamber that tested the Apollo spacecraft before they were sent on their historic mission’s to the moon. This will ensure that the telescopes optics will function properly in a vacuum.

A life-sized model of the JWST was placed on display in Seattle, Washington - it was several stories tall and weighed several tons. Photo Credit: Rob Gutro/ NASA

With all of the effort placed into the JWST – a lot of spinoff technology was developed that saw its way into the lives of the general populace. Several of these – had to be invented prior to the start of the JWST program.

“Ten technologies that are required for JWST to function did not exist when the project was first planned, and all have been successfully achieved. These include both near and mid-infrared detectors with unprecedented sensitivity, the sunshield material, the primary mirror segment assembly, the NIRSpec microshutter array, the MIRI cryo-cooler, and several more,” said the James Webb Space Telescope’s Deputy Project Scientist Jason Kalirai. Kalirai holds a PhD in astrophysics and carries out research for the Space Telescope Science Institute. “The new technologies in JWST have led to many spinoffs, including the production of new electric motors that outperform common gear boxes, design for high precision optical elements for cameras and cell phones, and more accurate measurements of human vision for people about to undergo Laser Refractive Surgery.”

The James Webb Space Telescope encapsulated atop the Ariane V rocket tapped launch it, next to an early image of the telescope. Image Credit: NASA

If all goes according to plan, the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched from French Guiana atop the European Space Agency’s Arianne V Rocket. The rationale behind the Ariane V’s selection was based on capabilities – and economics.

“The Ariane V was chosen as the launch vehicle for JWST at the time because there was no U.S. rocket with the required lift capacity,” Kalirai said. “Even today, the Ariane V is a better tested vehicle. Moreover, the Ariane is provided at no cost by the Europeans while we would have had to pay for a U.S. rocket.”

It still remains to be seen as to whether or not the JWST will even fly. As of July 6 of this year the project is slated to be cancelled by the United States Congress. The James Webb Space Telescope was initially estimated at costing $1.6 billion. As of this writing an estimated $3 billion has been spent on the project and it is has been estimated that the telescope is about three-quarters complete.