In a move that would make Dr Evil drool, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has made the surprise announcement that it will give NASA two powerful telescopes intended as spy satellites.
Why? Well, it turns out that these spy telescopes could be re-purposed as space telescopes more powerful than Hubble! Sadly, this is one gift that still comes with a pretty huge price tag.
The ideal scenario is this: Rather than the two "spy 'scopes" snooping on rogue nations, NASA will just strap some instruments to them, blast them into orbit and turn those babies to face away from Earth. They won't seek rogue aliens, but they will probe the depths of the Universe, building on Hubble's historic legacy — such as exploring the mystery of Dark Energy.
Launched in 1990, Hubble has seen several servicing missions from space shuttle missions. Last year, as the shuttle was retired, NASA also retired its ability to fix the aging space telescope. As time goes on, it will degrade, ultimately prompting the US space agency to ditch it the Pacific Ocean. So far, only the troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is planned to replace Hubble, but it is currently over-budget and over-schedule. It is not due for launch until (hopefully) 2018.
But re-purposing two NRO telescopes appears to be a wonderful Band-Aid for a tricky space telescope problem. Also, as hardware construction consumes a lot of funds and time ahead of any space telescope mission, these two telescopes would save NASA a lot of cash.
One has to wonder, though, how much of the NRO budget was consumed building the telescopes in the first place? And why are they just "surplus"? For now, that appears to be a mystery. NRO spokeswoman Loretta Desio told The New York Times that the original purpose for the telescopes "is not something we’re going to talk about … We're hoping this becomes a NASA story."
Speaking with the Washington Post, David Spergel, Princeton astrophysicist and co-chair of the National Academies advisory panel on astronomy and astrophysics, pointed out that the two spy 'scopes outclass Hubble's resolving power — by 100 times. Although they have Hubble-sized mirrors, they also have a maneuverable secondary mirror, allowing for better focusing.
But as you may have guessed, there's a hitch. A very big hitch.
Neither of the NRO telescopes have instruments necessary to carry out astronomical studies. They have no spectrometers, cameras or any of the kit needed to process the vast amount of data their huge telescopic eyes would gather.
In short, NASA needs to find the budget to build all the instrumentation and then launch the two telescopes. This may be a significant NRO "freebie," but apart from constructing the telescope itself, NASA will still need to foot the bill for instrumentation. Also, there needs to be a team of mission scientists, engineers and technicians that would oversee the mission. Again, that would need a lot of cash and a recurring annual budget allocation.
Unless the NRO would be so kind to launch the telescopes once they've been retrofitted, NASA will have to pay for that too.
And assuming reasonable budgets are allocated for such an endeavor, neither telescope is likely to see low-Earth orbit until 2020 at the earliest.
Still, it's nice to have a couple of powerful back-up space telescopes in the shed, gathering dust.
More of the back story of how the NRO telescopes were acquired can be found in The New York Times.
Image: In 2009, an STS-125 crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped a photo of the Hubble Space Telescope as the two spacecraft approached each other in Earth orbit prior to the capture during the fourth servicing mission to the observatory. Credit: NASA