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NASA gets two Hubble-class telescopes from the military

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June 6, 2012

NASA has been given two ex-spy satellites with optics superior to those of the Hubble Spac...

NASA has been given two ex-spy satellites with optics superior to those of the Hubble Space Telescope seen here (Photo: NASA)

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NASA’s collection of space telescopes just got a bit bigger thanks to an extraordinary gift from America's National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) intelligence agency. The space agency announced on Monday that the NRO has given it two surplus spy satellites that are more advanced than the Hubble Space Telescope. If the money can be found for a mission for the spy “birds” then NASA will not only have two possible replacements for the retiring Hubble, but also an added ability to scan the skies for supernovae, locate new exoplanets and even seek the answer to the fate of the universe.

The spy satellites, which have never flown, are in storage in Rochester, NY. They were part of America’s military-intelligence space program run by the Department of Defense and the intelligence services - something the world gets a glimpse of when the U.S. Air Force lifts the veil on its X-37 space plane ... or the NRO shows that it has a couple of Hubble-class orbital telescopes going spare.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took decades of development, funding problems, setbacks and missed launch dates before finally getting into orbit, only to have a design flaw discovered that required a Space Shuttle visit to put right. Now that the Hubble is reaching the end of its service life, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is going through a replay of the same problems.

Though the NRO satellites have been officially declassified, the complex rules about secret material, plus a reluctance to tip what the satellites are capable of, means that many details about them have not been made public. Not even their names have been revealed, but from descriptions they appear to be some variant of the KH-11 Kennan spy satellites that the Pentagon has been flying since 1975. This pair were probably built in the 1990s or slightly later.

"Stubby Hubbles"

Described by NASA as “Stubby Hubbles,” the spy satellites weigh in at 1,700 kg (3,700 lb) and look like a cross between the Hubble and a dustbin. The optics are superior to the Hubble’s, which is impressive, since the Hubble can see a dime perched on top of the Washington Monument. The satellites have the same 94-inch diameter primary mirror as the Hubble, though with a much steeper curvature. They also have a much shorter focal length than the Hubble, allowing them to scan a much wider field of vision. Unlike the Hubble, they also have a maneuverable secondary mirror for better focus. There is also more room in the stern of the satellites than the Hubble for mounting instruments.

And the catch? While it may seem a great windfall for NASA to have a couple of super-Hubbles fall into its lap, when they were first given to NASA they were looked upon as a couple of white elephants. They may have had superior optics, but not much else. The NRO had stripped the satellites of everything still on the secret list and what was left didn’t even have solar panels or an attitude control system. Worse, the transfer of ownership was merely the handing over of a piece of paper saying that they were now NASA’s, so the satellites remained in upstate New York and NASA was stuck with US$1,000,000 a year in storage costs. That’s not small change for a pair of half-there satellites that no one knew what to do with.

Then John Grunsfeld, ex-astronaut and NASA’s associate administrator for space science had a brainstorm. Ideas had already been put forward to use them for hunting extra-solar planets or keeping an eye out for supernovae, but he suggested something bolder - studying dark energy.

Dark energy

Dark energy is a hypothetical energy that some scientists believe explains a fundamental mystery of the universe. Because of how the cosmos works and how much matter is in it, the expansion of the universe after the Big bang should have slowed down about five billion years ago as the particles that make up matter start to attract one another with a force stronger than the force of expansion. This hasn’t happened. In fact, the expansion has actually sped up. Why this is happening remains a mystery, but one hypothesis is that the universe is permeated with an undetectable form of “dark energy” that makes up about 73 percent of all the matter and energy in the universe. This dark energy acts as a counter attractant and stretches the universe apart like a gigantic taffy pulling machine.

This has some fairly dire implications because if the expansion continues, then the galaxies will be stretched so far apart and be moving so fast in relation to one another that one day our galaxy may find itself alone in its own pocket universe where it will burn itself out. The alternative is that the dark energy ends up just ripping all the matter in the universe apart in the end, which isn’t very pleasant either.

NASA already has a project for studying dark matter called WFIRST, which stands for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The only problem is the WFIRST seems hopelessly stalled with a price tag of US$1.5 billion, a launch date of 2024 and the need to lift the spacecraft into a very expensive solar orbit. Grunfeld thought that the spy satellites, with their ability to view in the infrared range, might be a viable alternative to WFIRST and when he showed the craft to the WFIRST spacecraft engineers, they reportedly said: “Don’t change a thing.”

Using the spy satellites would certainly give WFIRST a boost. Having two ready-made craft, a mission craft and a back up, already at hand saves NASA US$250 million and moves the launch window forward to 2020. Equally important, the spy satellites can do the job from geosynchronous orbit around the Earth, which is much cheaper to reach than solar orbit.

As of now, this mission is still just an idea and will remain so until Congress decides whether or not to fund it. Then the satellites need to be modified and completed, so there is a long way to go.

Sources: New York Times, Washington Post

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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7 Comments

Looks like a Falcon 9 type payload to GTO which would remove the main problem of atmospheric drag requiring refueling of the new Hubbles. Having them in Geosynchronous orbit will allow for Optical Interferometry between the instruments.

L1ma
7th June, 2012 @ 05:21 am PDT

NASA plans to send them up on the next two Space Shuttle missions.

MBadgero
7th June, 2012 @ 05:38 am PDT

Obvious question - (alluded to by MBadgero) is how do they plan to get these puppies into space? I recall Hubble went up with the shuttle and it took all of the cargo bay.

Perhaps, someone has a spare shuttle hanging around?

Charles G. Gage
7th June, 2012 @ 09:31 am PDT

Space X's falcon heavy will be able to lift more then double what the shuttle could...so getting it into space won't be a problem.

Derek Howe
7th June, 2012 @ 02:42 pm PDT

Too many rocket scientists and contractors with their tin cups stretched out. An engineer would say bolt on the attitude control system, power system, and communications and be done with it. No invention needed. The superior optics coupled with our advances in imagers will make an awesome OPTICAL telescope. The only problem is launch, since the only system I recall that could put up something this DIAMETER (and length in the case of Hubble) is the Shuttle orbiter (anyone notice the politics of announcing this AFTER ensuring the Shuttles were decommissioned?). There's no way the Dragon could push something this diameter into orbit, IMO. Maybe a Delta heavy lifter? I also suspect two of these fit in a Shuttle payload bay to reduce launch costs and to deploy these assets more quickly. NASA still has the attitude of having $1.5B and sizing whatever they get to recycle to $1.5B. Stop it and the dark matter boondoggle (nobody cares about dark energy except weaponeers)...put up the two stubby Hubbles and have them produce "beautiful pictures", if anything else but PR for more science programs, and more importantly, inspire kids to do something else than play Angry Birds all day.

solutions4circuits
7th June, 2012 @ 11:32 pm PDT

re solution4circuits

The shuttle bay had a 4.6 * 18 meters volume. The dragon 9 internal payload volume is 4.6 * 6.6 meters since capturing shuttle commercial payloads created a standard payload width. Space x will launch with custom fairings at additional cost, and each telescope is less than half the payload mass (4900kg) the falcon 9 can send into GTO orbit. We have therefore plenty of free payload mass to exchange for a longer fairing.

L1ma
8th June, 2012 @ 02:37 am PDT

To me the interesting point is that the Hubble can see a dime on top of the Washington Monument and these have better optics. Now we know the CIA can read the tags on your underwear. No more bs about 1 meter resolution. They really can read the print on a golf ball.

escher7
10th June, 2012 @ 01:04 am PDT
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