NASA is excited about the gift of two Hubble-sized telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office, but not sure it has the cash to put them to full use.
Manufacturer ITT Exelis is storing the telescopes in a specially designed room in Rochester, N.Y., at a cost of about $1,500 a week. To fully equip and launch one of them by 2020 would cost between $1 billion and $2 billion, if NASA had the money — which it doesn’t, according to Michael Moore, acting deputy director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division.
“We actually have a reasonable idea of what the capabilities of the telescopes could be,” Moore told reporters. “What we need to do is ... look at the cost-benefit analysis of any particular investment.”
The 2.4-meter space telescopes and satellite casings may enable NASA to complete a number of delayed space astronomy missions, notably the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, which is beset by budget troubles.
The satellite telescopes are lighter and newer than the Hubble Space Telescope. Each includes a moving secondary mirror that can observe 100 times the area observed by the Hubble’s fixed mirrors, according to astronomer Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, who presented an analysis of the scopes to the National Research Council.
The NRO gave NASA the telescopes last year after deeming them unnecessary for the NRO’s mission. The donation was announced in June even though NASA has been reviewing its options for more than a year.
The telescopes have “high-performance” optics and are each valued at about $250 million.
Lawmakers are looking at appropriating $17 billion for NASA in fiscal 2013, just enough to plod ahead with NASA’s top priorities, including the 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s formidable successor. Much of the information about the telescopes remains hush-hush, however — as a redacted picture of one of the birds released by Dressler shows.
Because of the telescopes’ configuration, astronomers already are pondering the kinds of missions they could undertake. One might be to explore the dark energy that makes up about 75 percent of the universe and affects its expansion.
“We don’t have a good physical explanation for why this dark energy should be there. Or, to be more precise, we have lots of ideas, none of them really convincing,” said David Spergel, who chairs Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences. “And we need some observational data to tell us what set of ideas might be right.”