Don’t let Hubble fade away

Without servicing, the telescope will probably die by 2007.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently announced the cancellation of the fifth planned service mission to its celebrated Hubble Space Telescope, condemning it to an early death. Astronomers, as well as the general public, stand to prematurely lose one of the greatest tools to understanding our universe science has provided.

Originally, the telescope was supposed to remain in orbit until 2010, but without servicing, it will probably die by 2007. NASA administrator Sean O’ Keefe cited safety and budgetary reasons for the cancellation. Fortunately, scientists and lawmakers convinced O’Keefe to allow an independent investigation of the safety issues that many feel are largely a cover.

An anonymous NASA engineer also released two reports claiming safety issues cannot justify canceling the Hubble mission, and other space experts consider the report credible. The Columbia disaster spurred NASA to set new safety standards for shuttle flight, effectively grounding the vehicles. However, NASA still plans to use the shuttle to finish building the International Space Station and has already spent $200 million preparing for the now-canceled Hubble service mission, including creating new instruments that were to be installed. It makes little sense to neglect the telescope now.

Part of the blame for Hubble’s premature demise must be focused squarely on President George W. Bush. Bush announced his intention to send a manned mission to Mars and is now forcing NASA to cut valuable funding to other programs within its budget – Hubble one of them – to help finance the Mars endeavor.

Presidential science adviser John Marburger III argues that ground-based telescopes are improving to the point that they will take over for Hubble. But Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said it will be at least a decade until ground-based observatories will have the visible wavelength capabilities of Hubble. Hubble also has a wider view and higher sensitivity than any ground-based telescope.

The telescope that proved the existence of massive black holes at galaxies’ centers, provided amazing deep-field views of the early universe and helped scientists better understand the physical processes of known objects, should not be left to die – its potential for discovery is too valuable. NASA should allow astronomers to continue using Hubble until its successor is launched.