32 Flavors of Awesome: NASA Peace Dividend Edition

Can’t say how much I chortled in glee at this report (by old friend Dennis Overbye).

It seems that one of our deep spook agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office (AKA the other NRO) somehow managed to accumulate not one, but a matched pair of Hubble-class space telescopes.  These now belong to NASA.

What’s coolest is that these instruments were optimized for a particular task — reading the label on my undershorts — but it turns out that the design choices made to enhance the two ‘scopes capacities as ground surveillance tools are also nicely tailored for two of the key observational goals of the next space observatories.  The instruments are much shorter than the Hubble, which gives them a wider field of view.  That wide angle capacity — useful indeed if you’re sitting a few hundred miles up and trying to pick out details at Parchin or Houla — turns out to be just fine for some serious astronomy and cosmology:

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.”

Dr. Grunsfeld said his first reaction was that the telescopes would be a distraction. “We were getting something very expensive to handle and store,” he said.

Earlier this spring he asked a small group of astronomers if one of the telescopes could be used to study dark energy.

The answer, he said, was: “Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect.”

Even bigger advantages come, astronomers say, from the fact that the telescope’s diameter, 94 inches, is twice as big as that contemplated for Wfirst, giving it four times the light-gathering power, from which a whole host of savings cascade. Instead of requiring an expensive launch to a solar orbit, the telescope can operate in geosynchronous Earth orbit, complete its survey of the sky four times faster, and download data to the Earth faster.

Equipped with a coronagraph to look for exoplanets — another of Wfirst’s goals — the spooky Hubble could see planets down to the size of Jupiter around other stars.

Caveats: the instruments themselves account for only a relatively small fraction of the cost of actually launching and running an observatory in space.  And Dennis has his snark meter set (subtly) on eleven when he writes that “responsible adults in Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences have yet to sign one.”  But still, given the years of starvation predicted for the space science side of NASA, this is the first news in a while that gives me the sense that we’re in with a chance.

A couple of threads below this one, commenter gbear complained that Balloon Juice today was not doing much to pull against the tug of depression.  I’m sorry — I don’t want to add to anyone’s sense of enfolding dark.  I’ll admit, it’s been hard for me to see much good in the news lately.  But this story reminds me that it ain’t all bad; far from it.  We can build unbelievably cool stuff — not bad for a bipedal ape (or a thinking radish).  And sometimes, it seems, a tool built to study the darkness of the human condition can turn around to capture the light piercing the expanse through which we journey on our pale blue dot.



Image:  Gerard Dou, Astronomer by Candlelight, c. 1665

22 replies
  1. 1
    Multimoodia says:

    I clicked on the photo with “the pale blue dot” to get a better look and it went to a page that read:

    *Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.*

    Heh, indeed.

  2. 2
    taylormattd says:

    That Voyager photo is so beautiful.

  3. 3
    Redshift says:

    I read about this earlier today, and it is indeed awesome.

    It also highlights the absurdity of our budget priorities, that scientists have to fight tooth and nail to get the kind of instruments that the intelligence agencies can just build and then decide they don’t really need them, and we’ll never hear a peep about cutting their budgets.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    gbear says:

    Nice to see science win one now and then.

    Thanks for some cheerier news, Tom. It wasn’t just your posting. Everyone was posting gloom & doom stuff this morning. This evening, I’m going to go do some volunteer work for MN United For All Families, one of the groups fighting to get the marriage discrimination ammendment voted down this fall. I’m hoping we get some more good news tomorrow out of Wisconsin. Fingers crossed.

  6. 6
    S. cerevisiae says:

    Wow, that is good news! Dark energy is a huge mystery, and currently we don’t know what makes up over 90% of the universe we occupy.

    Cosmology is cool shit.

  7. 7
    MikeJ says:

    This is much better than sending meatbags 100 miles up and pretending it’s science.

  8. 8
    jenn says:

    Great post! And I LOVE the last sentence. Thanks!

  9. 9
    Bill Arnold says:

    It’s still the case that most space telescopes look down, not up.
    (Looking down is OK if public or semi-public (e.g. commercial) images are being gathered.)

  10. 10
    BigHank53 says:

    One of the reasons they’re Hubble-class scopes is that the Hubble itself was based on a Keyhole (KH) spy satellite. The spacecraft bus (electronics, telemetry, power, and manuvering systems) is pretty much unchanged. Hubble got upgraded gyros for maintaining its fix during long exposures, a problem the KH spysats never had.

    The real question will be how many modifications need to be made to the instrument bays in order to fit modern sensors. Can they just stuff in existing Hubble spares? I know for a fact there’s a couple of spare wide-field cameras at Goddard Space Flight Center…and it wouldn’t be that expensive to mount a cryo-cooled near-IR sensor, too.

  11. 11
    PeakVT says:

    Dirty little secret: Hubble, too, is a heavily re-engineered spy satellite. There’s lots of 2.4m mirrors up there already, looking down at us.

    ETA: beaten to it twice.

  12. 12
    Tom Levenson says:

    @PeakVT: Yup. They gave us the broken one.;)

  13. 13
    MariedeGournay says:

    I think about Voyager speeding away from our solar system and it sends chills down my spine. Just a wee bit of us, a really good wonderful bit is WAY OUT THERE. It’s suppose to pass its first star in about 40,000 years. It’d be nice if we got our shit together enough to mark the occasion.

  14. 14
    PeakVT says:

    @BigHank53: It article indicates that the initial idea is to use one for survey-style observing, so the instrument requirements would be different. But that’s okay, because survey-style telescopes are fairly productive in terms of generating significant research.

    @Tom Levenson: It’s a funny joke, but not really true. There were three mirrors made for the Hubble. The bad one made by Perkin-Elmer is up there, one by Kodak is in the Smithsonian, and one by Itek is in use down here in the Magdalena Ridge Observatory SINGLE telescope. Perkin-Elmer promised more precise grinding, which I think they delivered on, but the curvature was wrong.

  15. 15
    Tom Levenson says:

    @PeakVT: I know it’s not true. Some time ago I produced a film on telescopes funded in part by the Perkins family foundation, and I got to talk to folks over there in some detail about the mirror.

    What people don’t realize is how hard and how expensive it is to test the accuracy of non-spherical curvatures. P-E screwed up, no doubt. But they were doing something very difficult.

  16. 16
    paradox says:

    I am somewhat relieved, for some reason, at not being the only one to immediately investigate the Voyager image. Very compelling, totally fascinating.

    40,000 years is not a long time evolutionary-wise, many of our best successful species have lasted far longer than that. Reminds us of what newcomers we are, but it never seems to instill some evolutionary humility. Yes we are amazing, but we are pipsqueaks on the scene in the time dimension.

    Thanks for the story, it is good news.

  17. 17
    Nick says:

    It’s nice they’re able to reuse this for looking “out.”

    Echoing some of the broader messages you might see on this blog related to the dire need for infrastructure investment, we’re living on borrowed time with a lot of earth observation satellites at the moment. The incredible lifespan of Landsat 5 comforts me a little, but data like the MODIS record–daily observations since 2000 of surface reflectance at dozens of wavelengths–is really something special, and it would be a crying shame to see discontinuity in the future due to delayed launches (or lack of funding for mission planning).

  18. 18
    El Cid says:

    Much better than the GOP knuckle-dragging brigades celebrating Bush Jr’s defeat of “GoreSat”, an Earth observatory to be placed in L1 orbit.

    See, it just wasn’t scientifically interesting, what with all its “looking” at the Earth’s atmosphere and potentially getting measurements of CO2 changes and IR longwave photon escape, i.e., you know, all that “global warming” hooey which could threaten the destruction of some portion of fossil-fuel-related profits.

    Since obviously we didn’t want any of that dangerous “knowledge” accumulating by too much fancy-pants looking at the Urf, the Obama spendthrifts managed to somehow give this waste of science a reprieve:

    The Air Force is expected to award a non-ULA launch services contract this year for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a one-time NASA Earth-monitoring satellite that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is turning into a solar observatory. A request for bids under the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program was released May 11.

    Why can’t we get a government interested in real space science, like, sending up missions to observe how awesome NASCAR is, or an L1 / L2 orbital mission to constantly monitor how much liberal news is polluting space.

  19. 19
    Canuckistani Tom says:

    My gut tells me that the NRO is about to launch (or already has) the next generation of spy sats, and that these two are leftover spares that were built and are now no longer needed.

    Normally they’d just be junked, I wonder why the change in SOP?

  20. 20
    LanceThruster says:

    We can build unbelievably cool stuff—not bad for a bipedal ape (or a thinking radish). And sometimes, it seems, a tool built to study the darkness of the human condition can turn around to capture the light piercing the expanse through which we journey on our pale blue dot.

    Just as an aside on homo sapien…

    Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.~ Robert E. Howard “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933)

  21. 21
    bjacques says:

    This pretty cool and I hope NASA can get a government discount on the launch and deployment of these in orbit. I told my dad about it.

    I also finally had a good counter-argument the one my dad, who unfortunately has been mainlining the Fox Kool-Aid, has against Obama and Charlie Bolden, the former astronaut who now heads the agency (and coincidentally is black).

    When the retired Space Shuttles went to Dulles, Seattle and Cape Canaveral, my dad said it was Obama punishing Texas for not voting for him and trying to get Florida to swing Democratic, as if Texas teabaggers would vote for Obama for sending to Johnson Space Center a real Shuttle instead of the mockup last weekend.

    The argument is that Houston has always gotten the lion’s share of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and has all of it now that Kennedy Space Center just rents launch pads to SpaceX and others. In other words, Houston still has the *work* (managing the International Space Station) and the other places got the consolation prizes. My dad seemed to like that argument.

  22. 22
    A different Mike J says:

    @MikeJ: Don’t forget those “meatbags” saved the HST once it was on orbit and they realized the mirror was ground to the wrong shape.

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