All good things must come to an end, though. The shuttle is flying no more, and within the next couple of years, the aging telescope will gradually wink out too. It will be a terrible loss to science, and it kind of makes you wish someone had a spare Hubble secretly stashed away, just waiting to be unpacked and sent into orbit. That’s what would happen in the Hollywood version, anyway.
But it turns out that it is happening in real life too. The National Science Foundation has just revealed the existence of not one but two pristine, Hubble-class space telescopes still in their original wrappings in a warehouse in Rochester, N.Y. The pair was originally built for the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency in charge of spy satellites, to look down at Earth rather than up into space. But the NRO has moved on to bigger and better instruments, and decided to hand the telescopes over. “It just blew me away when I heard about this,” says Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, a member of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Astrophysics and Astronomy. “I knew nothing about it.”
The unexpected gift has sent NASA and the astronomical community, both of which have learned to live with smaller budgets and lower expectations in recent years, into a mild state of shock. It’s not clear what they’ll do with this astonishing gift — and indeed, even among the handful of scientists who have been in on the secret, there’s only a general consensus on how they might use just one of the telescopes, never mind both.
But while the free scopes are essentially there for the taking, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The cost of adapting cameras and other instruments to the rest of the components, then launching the whole thing and operating it for years won’t be insignificant. “A 50% discount still means you have to come up with the other 50%,” says Spergel. Still, getting the new scope into space should at least be cheaper than it was to launch the Hubble. “Hubble,” he says, “is really a 1960s-era telescope. It’s very heavy and fairly long. This one will be lighter and smaller.” Even with drastic upgrades, Hertz says, it’s plausible that it would cost just $1 billion to adapt and launch the proposed WFIRST — an absurdly low figure for such a powerful machine.
As for the second free telescope, the consensus so far, says Spergel, is that “we wait until sometime in the 2020s to decide what to do with it.” At the moment, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble’s official successor, is eating up the lion’s share of NASA’s science budget, and even at a discount, there’s no way the agency can move ahead with both of the unexpected freebies at once.
I sure hope this doesn’t kill the James Webb Space Telescope.