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A Space Telescope on the Cheap

Back in 1997, astronaut John Grunsfeld pulled off one of the great radio gags of all time by calling in to National Public Radio’s ‘Car Talk’ program while orbiting the Earth aboard Atlantis in STS-81. He had called to complain about his vehicle’s performance which, as he told the show’s hosts — known as ‘Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers’ — was driving him crazy. His troublesome ride would buck and rattle and run loud for four minutes, then get much quieter for another ten, and then the engine would quit. Odd behavior for any vehicle but the Space Shuttle, as Click and Clack eventually realized, and a memorable exploit for Grunsfeld’s second Shuttle mission.

Image: A bumpy ride to orbit — liftoff of STS-81 on January 12, 1997. Credit: NASA.

Grunsfeld is more commonly remembered as a repairman for the Hubble Space Telescope, a task he performed on three subsequent missions without the help of ‘Car Talk.’ Now the astronaut, with over 58 days in space and eight space-walks, is in the news again, this time with a plan that would not only save NASA money on a future mission design but rescue equipment that is otherwise unused. Grunsfeld has presented a plan to use one of two space telescopes the size of Hubble that were originally designed as spy satellites and re-purpose the instrument toward deep space exploration. Its uses in studying dark energy and exoplanets are among the attractions.

An even bigger attraction is that this hardware is sitting in storage waiting for a ride. The indispensable Dennis Overbye has the story in yesterday’s New York Times, where he discusses what Grunsfeld had to say on Monday at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. The telescopes themselves are in a ‘clean room’ in Rochester, NY, the property of ITT Exelis, an aerospace and technology company headquartered in McLean, VA. The National Reconnaissance Office is ready to pass them along. Overbye offers a description:

Dr. Grunsfeld described the telescopes as “bits and pieces” in various stages of assembly, lacking a camera and other accouterments, like solar panels or pointing controls, of a spacecraft. “We can’t say what they were used for,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Reconnaissance Office, Loretta Desio, said, “This is not something we’re going to talk about,” adding, “We’re hoping this becomes a NASA story.”

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.”

But astronomers are telling Grunsfeld they can also be used to look up and out. The question of the moment: Could a repurposed telescope like one of those at ITT Exelis be folded into the WFIRST concept? The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010, has been slated for a launch in the mid-2020s, if then, but the $1.5 billion project could be completed sooner and at lower cost — about $250 million lower — if one of the repurposed telescopes were to be used. Overbye points out that the telescope would have twice the diameter as the one being considered for WFIRST, allowing operations in geosynchronous Earth orbit rather than the solar orbit previously anticipated, and offering a faster sky survey as well as more efficient data downloads.

And yes, suitably modified, one of these telescopes could also be used as an exoplanet hunter. Grunsfeld, who is now NASA associate administrator for space science, has worked out the initial details with a team of astronomers, who seem enthusiastic about the prospect of getting WFIRST — or something perhaps even better — into the sky in an earlier time frame. Could we see a mission using a telescope with four times the light-gathering power of the WFIRST concept ready to fly as early as 2020? The opportunity is there even if a new cost estimate is not, but surely the possibility will come in for consideration at the highest levels. Unused equipment sitting in storage is made to order for economic times like these.

Addendum: This story has plenty of layers to it. See, for example, These Are Not the Telescopes NASA Was Looking For, which just appeared on NASA Watch. Also, check this site (thanks Bill Higgins) and find “Implication of New Developments for the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey” — Alan Dressler, Observatories of the Carnegie Institute. Also see “New Developments in Astronomy and Astrophysics” — Paul Hertz, Associate Administrator for NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD), linked off the same page. Finally, Marcia Smith has a good overview of the initial announcement on SpacePolicyOnline.com.


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  • d.m.falk June 5, 2012, 12:23

    Sounds like a winning idea! :)


  • Frank Smith June 5, 2012, 14:28

    I would urge NASA to use one of the telescopes in optical wavelengths. The Webb telescopes infrared image may make the physicists happy, but Hubble’s iconic optical images are vital for the public’s interest in space.

    Heck, I’ve got a high quality Barlow lens I’ll donate if they need one..

  • jkittle June 5, 2012, 14:42

    These telescopes will really jump start the much needed survey work, and will work in tandem with earth based observatories ( Panstarrs and LSST) . the cynic in me has to notice that these telescopes, which were offered to NASA months ago- were only made public AFTER the asteroid mining company “Planetary Resources” announced they would be deploying survey scopes that would be much like WFIRST. The business plan was to sell data to NASA to help recoup expenses. NASA ( well, her cadre of contractors at least) is now poised to ” reconfigure ” these spare space telescopes for the same purpose. You can bet that data will be hard for the space miners to access, or delayed release to the point of diminished value. The lack of a place to sell data privately funded will also impact the overall cash flow of the mining company.- unless the data targeting asteroid composition is collected and viable on a realistic time frame.
    The capabilities of the These NRO scopes is fantastic and makes us all pause when we consider how many of these were deployed while astronomers have to take scraps and leavings that fall off the defense table. Even it mighty JWST development must have some counterparts in the hidden part of the security budget. no complaints about cost overruns there!
    These survey scopes will see the whole sky and form geosynchrous orbit will support much higher data transfer rates than WFRST or JWST could handle- from the la Grange point.- thus lots of high quality survey data, using technology similar to that used for intelligence satellites.
    Astronomy will find all kinds of uses for the data and we can push back the edges of the known solar system even while we plot the density of Dark energy and Dark matter.
    Great stuff. I can be cynical perhaps but really, we need to deploy these resources. It is just interesting that a little hint of competition and suddenly these telescopes appear!

  • Mike June 5, 2012, 15:25

    Seems like a good idea to me. But who knows if the funding will be secured.
    Makes you wonder what other goodies are hidden away.

  • marvin June 5, 2012, 21:38

    It would seem to be time to consider resurrecting SIM. Perhaps using the SLS as a launch vehicle placing the two birds at opposing Lagrange points as stripped down light buckets and Hubble’s instrument package and appeture as the third leg of an interferometer system that is if it is still healthy in the 2020 time frame. If not it could provide the commercial boys with an opportunity

  • Matt June 6, 2012, 6:05

    @jkittle: I think these two telescopes are as similar to the Planetary Resources ‘scopes as an Abrams tank is similar to a smart car. Big and exquisitely precise vs small, inexpensive, and many. The timing appears to be coincidental. The telescopes were apparently donated in 2011 and constructed in the late ’90s or early 2000s.

    The real tragedy is the second of these telescopes will likely never make it to space. Maybe if the economy picks up and the country regains some vision for stellar science…

  • Ronald June 6, 2012, 6:14

    Nice, but no replacement for the James Webb ST, TPF, Darwin or een SIM.

  • Enzo June 6, 2012, 6:38

    ESA built and launched Herschel, a 3.5 m telescope for 1.1 euro B.
    Does anyone have any ideas how much more it would had been had it been in the visible wavelengths ?
    A 3.5m telescope would be a lot better than Hubble.

  • Michael Spencer June 6, 2012, 8:05

    SpaceflightNow quotes Loretta Desio, a spokesperson for the NRO: “the telescopes were constructed in the late 1990s and early 2000s”.

    OK. So they are now around a decade old. This equipment, again according to the same source, would be launched around 2024, making the gear at least 20 years old when finally launched.

    Given the rate of improvement in telescopes, one wonders if this is a bit of a ‘pig in a poke’. It’s old news that while NASA was struggling with the construction of Hubble, the NRO was already at least a generation ahead.

    I wonder what the Smart People think? Is this a case of ‘if it’s too good to be true…”?

  • jkittle June 6, 2012, 12:44

    mike S
    Nasa does seem to be either pushing really old technology or trying to get the bleeding edge to work.
    The adaptable mirrors of NRO should be just fine- it is the detectors that need to be up to date- at least a half a gigapixel for this type of work. the sky is 40,000 square degrees so if you are to take pictures you might want a camer with at least a FOV of 2 by 2 degrees- 4 degrees square… this translates to covering the sky with 10,000 pictures. at the diffraction limited resolution for a 96 inch scope , WOW that is a lot of pixels. I am guessing over 10 giga pixels. ( reality check, Panstarrs is using a 1.4 gigapixel camera and lsst is over 3 gigapixels, ) . for a camera operating in the infrared range it would be less but these are not regular items. Put these two cameras / scopes in geosynchronous orbit at opposite sides of the planet and you can directly triangulate distances to objects in the solar system. Use them over a period of years and you get many exa-bytes of data… parallax most of the stars in our galaxy. The new costs will be in the detectors and data communications and processing, as well as the launches. One big pair of binocular scopes! what a great way to complement the power of the JSST which may only see 1% of the sky in its working lifetime.

  • Frank Smith June 6, 2012, 13:26

    I was a national finalist for a amateur observing project in Cycle 0 for the Hubble Space Telescope.
    Just a reminder that NASA never actually “fixed” Hubble. The COSTAR add-on got rid of the spherical aberration—at the cost of knocking a couple of magnitudes off Hubble’s magnitude limit. So Hubble’s mirror functioned as a considerably smaller one than it was designed for. Hubble never achieved it’s designed magnitude limit. One of these scopes with modern CCD cameras and a 94-inch mirror would do a lot of Science at optical wavelengths.

  • Mike June 6, 2012, 16:14

    Not stubby Hubble, Super Hubble! With a lot of science kicked in! Modern electronics and CCD cameras and better orbit, oh my!
    To Michael Spencer, optical engineering is no different 1990 or 2020.
    We can match the superb optics of these spies to the advanced electronics of the 2020s to create a better space telescope from near infrared to visual to near ultraviolet.
    All it takes is smarts and money.

  • Frank Smith June 6, 2012, 21:49

    I heard that the Perkins-Elmer mirror chosen for Hubble, even if it hadn’t been crippled with spherical abberration, was not as good as the General Electric-built backup mirror.
    As “Mike” above said, with those state-of-the-art Black Ops optics and modern electronics, the NRO telescopes would be the best space telescopes ever flown.

  • Joy June 7, 2012, 1:18

    As I pointed out previously a few months ago, a new purpose built NRO class astronomical telescope (Hubble class) with a vortex coronagraph could directly detect Earth twins around visible stars out to 30 LY (if any exist). Of course the stubby Hubble mirrors are not suitable for this purpose.

    But even for wide field survey work, the mirror would be only a fraction of the cost of a new space telescope, so repurposing these old NRO mirrors would only be a marginal cost saving.

  • ljk June 7, 2012, 12:20

    Tom Clancy said in his novel The Hunt for Red October that whatever the military makes now, the public won’t get to see for twenty years. Guess this still holds true, even after the Cold War.

  • ljk June 14, 2012, 10:28

    Out of the black

    Last week NASA announced the NRO was giving the space agency a pair of optical systems that could be used for future space telescopes. Dwayne Day explains how this donation is just the latest in a series of cooperative ventures between the two agencies that dates back to the early days of the Space Age.

    Monday, June 11, 2012