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US military gives NASA two better-than-Hubble telescopes

Double Hubble budget bubble trouble

By Rik Myslewski, 5 Jun 2012

In a surprise reminder that NASA is not the only US space program – nor likely the best-funded one – the US Department of Defense's National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is giving the perennially underfunded space administration two better-than-Hubble-class space telescopes, prosaically named Telescope One and Telescope Two.

One would think that the space boffins would be overjoyed at receiving such delectable crumbs dropped from the military's overstocked table – after all, One and Two are not only equipped with the same 7.9-foot mirrors as is the Hubble, they're also fitted with secondary mirrors that improve focusing.

All well and good, to be sure – if NASA could afford to transform the no-longer-needed spy telescopes into scientific instruments, and then get the big ol' beasts into space. The agency isn't exactly flush with cash these days.

When asked by Stars and Stripes if his spacey staffers were popping champagne corks in celebration of the NRO's unexpected munificence, NASA's science head John Grunsfeld moped, "We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight."

It's not just that NASA's budget doesn't include a launch vehicle for one, let alone two, Hubble-sized space telescopes. Another budget-buster is that the NRO telescopes are just that: telescopes, and just telescopes – they don't include any instruments such as cameras or spectrographs.

In addition, NASA has no staff to plan and man any missions for which they might be used. "The hardware is a significant cost item and it's a significant schedule item," Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel told Stars and Stripes. "The thing that takes the longest to build is the telescope." That's the good news. The bad news, he added, is that "A big cost of any mission is always just people."

Still, if NASA can figure out a way to get one of these birds into space, it could accomplish a stunning amount of science. Each of the two telescopes, Spergel said, would have 100 times the field of view of the Hubble – and the Hubble, of course, is nearing the end of its distinguished career, with no more NASA missions scheduled to service it.

"Instead of losing a terrific telescope," Spergel said, "you now have two telescopes even better to replace it with."

That is, of course, if NASA can afford to retrofit them and get them up into space – an Herculean task, what with the James Webb space telescope and its cost overruns tearing hefty chunks out of the space administration's beleaguered budget.

Perhaps the cash-flush US military could dig into its coffers and pay child support for the two telescopes it just offered up for adoption. ®