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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Recycling Old Spy Satellites

MSNBC has republished this story from the New York Times, saying that NASA will "repurpose" obsolete spy satellites for use in astronomy.
Sitting in a clean room in upstate New York were a pair of space telescopes the same size as the famed Hubble Space Telescope, but which had been built to point down at the Earth instead of up at the heavens.

NASA, struggling to get human space exploration moving again, then spent the last year trying to figure out how good these telescopes were and what, if anything, they could be used for. Some people wanted to bulldoze them; others wanted to scavenge them for parts. Working in secret with a small band of astronomers for the last couple of months, Dr. Grunsfeld, famous as the Hubble telescope’s on-orbit repairman, has now come up with a plan, which is being presented to the public on Monday. It is to turn one of the telescopes loose on the cosmos pointing in its rightful direction, outward, to investigate the mysterious dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

If the plan succeeds — and responsible adults in Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences have yet to sign on — it could shave hundreds of millions of dollars and several years off a quest that many scientists say is the most important of our time and that NASA had said it could not undertake until 2024 at the earliest.

* * *

The two telescopes have a 94-inch-diameter primary mirror, just like Hubble, but are shorter in focal length, giving them a wider field of view: "Stubby Hubbles," in the words of Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, adding, "They were clearly designed to look down."

Dr. Grunsfeld said his first reaction was that the telescopes would be a distraction. "We were getting something very expensive to handle and store," he said.

Earlier this spring he asked a small group of astronomers if one of the telescopes could be used to study dark energy.

The answer, he said, was: "Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect"

Astronomers have lobbied for a space mission to investigate dark energy ever since observations of the exploding stars known as supernovae indicated that the expansion of the universe was speeding up, the discovery that won Dr. Reiss and two other American astronomers the Nobel Prize. The fate of the universe, as well as the nature of physics, scientists say, depends on the nature of this dark energy.

But a decade of wrangling between agencies and astronomers over money and technical specifications had resulted in no consensus on a mission until 2010, when a committee of the National Academy of Sciences that was charged with determining astronomical priorities cobbled together a plan that would do the trick. In its report, "New Worlds, New Horizons," the committee gave that mission the highest priority in space science for the next decade.

The $1.5 billion project was called WFIRST, for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. Among its virtues was that it would search for exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system. But NASA, hobbled by mismanagement of the James Webb Space Telescope, has said that it will have no money to launch WFIRST until 2024 or later, if all goes well.

Recently, to the disgruntlement of many American astronomers, NASA agreed to participate as a very junior partner in a smaller European mission called Euclid, blasting off in 2019.

But, given a green light and some money, a mission with the "repurposed" telescope could be started in 2020. Of course, Mr. Moore added, "we have no money." Building the telescope can amount to a quarter to a half of the cost of a space astrophysics mission, astronomers said. Dr. Moore estimated that having it already would save the nation $250 million.
This would be a great idea. There is a lot of technology and know how that is obsolete for military/intelligence purposes, that would be a boon to the smaller science and technology agencies, or even commercial companies.

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