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Monday 19 January 2004

The end of an era [muz]

BBC News Online is reporting that NASA are discontinuing maintenance on Hubble. I am sure EED's resident Doctor of Asstrology, DrDave, will have some words to say on the subject, however I was so affected upon reading the story that I felt the need to do a blog myself.
For those of you that don't know, the Hubble is a space telescope launched in 1990 that for the past thirteen years has provided a plethora of data to the scientific community. When I say it's a space telescope, I should really say it's The Daddy of all Deep Space Observation Devices. Among other things, it has gathered data that allowed the calculation of the age of the universe, as well as providing proof of the existence of black holes.
Apparently, this cessation of maintenance is due to the fact that servicing Hubble is no longer possible due to its 'difficult orbit'. Doing so would violate safety protocols enacted after the Columbia disaster. The cynical might say that stepping back shuttle operations and discontinuing maintenance of the Hubble telescope will allow NASA more funds to pursue President George W. Bush's goals of a permanent presence on the moon and a manned mission to Mars. They might also point out that this revitalisation of the US space program could be an obvious ploy to win re-election. Were they very opionated cynics, they might even go so far as to point out that two failed missions out of one hundred and thirteen with an incalculable number of risks to the craft is an enviable safety record, and that data gathered from the Hubble telescope is of infinitely greater scientific value than any collected on the moon. However, I have never been accused of being an opinionated cynic.
In a completely unrelated post script, I would like to say that it is my firm belief that the general public should have no say in forming public policy. Democracy sucks. Long live Stalin.


  1. Yeah, fair enough, it'll be sad to see the old fella go. But let's not get carried away and make out like it's the End Of All Scientific Endeavour As We Know It eh?
    The HST has the good fortune of being the telescope that looked at the same wavelength we see. So naturally folk feel an attachment to it. But it really is only a part of the bigger picture.
    HST forms one quarter of NASA's Great Observatories program, alongside Compton (gamma rays), Chandra (X-Rays) and SIRTIF (IR), each of which has been contributing equally, if not more than, the HST. The thing is, you're not likely to see the latest X-Ray picture on the front page of The Independent. Not only that, you have several massive arrays of Radio telescopes sitting on the ground covering the long wavelength regime - including VLBI, an array which stretches across the entire planet, and out into orbit.
    We've also got stunning advances in ground based optical observations - with adaptive optics, VLT and the recent Keck results. To be perfectly honest, in a few years, our ground based optical observations will be comparable to the HST, and won't require dangling two astronauts with spanners out into the void to repair.
    But if space based telescopes are your bag, then the you shouldn't forget James Web Space Telescope, HST's successor, which will cover most of what HST does, only be positioned at Lagrange 1. Or how's about Kepler, which will look for terrestrial type planets. Or even ESA's very own Darwin observatory.
    And on top of all that, HST has another good 5 years of service left in it, even without the maintenance - taking it even further beyond its original mission lifetime.
    I won't comment on the US plans for the Moon and Mars, mainly because the astronomer within me fervantly wants to see these go ahead as promised, not merely turn out to be a cynical re-election ploy. But I would offer that the real danger to the scientific community is not limited to the end of the HST, which was more or less doomed since the loss of Columbia. The real danger is that the missions I've talked about above - and the countless other robotic missions - will be cancelled or scaled down at the expense of loftier, but less scientific goals.

  2. In fairness, Hubble has given extraordinary service to the worldwide scientific community. It can only be serviced by the orbiter, and that is being decommissioned by 2010 - a craft that itself has been around since the 1960s.

  3. I'm with Dave in that it's nice to see a space program with some sort of renewed future and goals, such as a permanent moon station and sending men to Mars. However I think both endeavors have pretty dubious scientific value, and more to do with winning an election.
    Yet what it will do is further research in launch vehicles, space craft, landers, running of extended missions in space (which is no easy thing) and that sort of thing. This sort of thing is what we need to be at least ticking over lest suddenly political events change Earthside and the entire planet goes inward facing to the point that the human race is SOL when the next extinction event comes along.
    Hubble a big loss for science? Not really, as Dave points out better than I could. I'm actually enthused by the excellent 'big science' programs underway in the world now. The joint international effort on fusion power just one of those, as well as the extensive worldwide research into fuel-cells and so on. There's more to be excited about than pessemistic, in my view.
    Incidentally, someone tell me why I fucking subscribe to Scientific American when the bloody thing turns up in the newsagents before my copy lands on my doorstep and I end up buying it twice. Cunts!