August 31, 2012
NASA is asking astronomers for help in figuring out what to do with a rare gift — a pair of half-assembled space telescopes, each the size of Hubble — donated earlier this year by the National Reconnaissance Office. The space agency’s astrophysics division is about to recruit members of a study team to look into how the telescopes might be used for either of two proposed missions — to study dark energy or to search for planets around other stars. The study group will hold its first meeting in November and report by the end of April. Their findings will then be folded into a wider study of possible uses for the telescopes, beyond just astrophysics.
How did NASA get such a windfall? The NRO, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, had two telescope assemblies (including 2.4-meter mirrors, but no instruments or spacecraft) left over from its canceled Future Imagery Architecture program. The mirrors are the same size as Hubble’s, and would offer a telescope with a wider field of view.
In different times, space scientists would be giddy at the prospect of free, Hubble-class mirrors. But NASA’s science budget has been so depleted by big-ticket items like the Mars Curiosity rover and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope that there’s no money left to turn the donated NRO mirror assemblies into completed space telescopes. Astronomers’ next priority for a large space mission is the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which would hunt for evidence of dark energy. Using the NRO hardware would save NASA some $250 million by some estimates, but the agency still doesn’t have enough money to finish the WFIRST project, which will cost upwards of $1.6 billion.
So, it’s a dilemma. And now it’s the astronomy community’s dilemma.
September 4 update: A workshop on the NRO telescopes is being held this week at Princeton University.