Friday, 08 June 2012 11:19
June 8, 2012
Most space enthusiasts have had their eyes firmly glued to recent launch of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the first private spaceship to ever dock with the International Space Station. But Space.com reports that there has been some big news back on the ground as well, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announcing recently it has arranged to take on two unused space telescopes from the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.
Satellites and spies
The NRO, founded at the start of the space race in 1961, is the agency responsible for building and maintaining the country's networks of observation satellites, a crucial source of information for both the U.S. military and numerous intelligence agencies.
For many decades, the NRO was known for an unblemished record of technical competence, but a project begun in the late 1990s ultimately undid much of that good will. Known as Future Imagery Architecture, the project was intended to provide the U.S. with a new generation of visible light and radar imaging satellites.
However, for the first time in the NRO's history, the agency awarded the project through a competitive bid to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, after having relied exclusively upon the services of Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
The complex engineering research and development process for creating a new breed of imaging satellites is unavoidably complex and expensive, but after years of delays and budget over-runs, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence called for a halt to the program in 2005. The ultimate cost of the project, though certainly in the billions, remains classifed.
Spying on the heavens
With the end of the FIA program, the NRO was left with two incomplete telescopes the size of the famous Hubble telescope being stored at the Rochester, New York, facilities of Boeing's partner on the project, ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems.
Loaded with plenty of sensitive and expensive equipment, industry insiders told Space.com the satellites would need to be stored in carefully climate controlled rooms, at a cost that could reach as high as $1 million per year, even though the NRO saw no real chance of them ever seeing use.
With that in mind, the agency approached NASA last year to suggest that it might be able to make use of the satellites if it could not. The space agency has had increasing difficulty defending its sizable budget, making it harder and harder to build new equipment, and much of the heavy lifting on these telescopes had already been done.
But new NASA head John Grunsfeld decided at first that the satellites would probably prove more of a "distraction" than a help, since they were built to look down at the Earth, with a wider field of vision.
More recently, however, Grunsfeld told The New York Times he raised the possibility with colleagues of using the telescope to try to look for evidence and track the effects of dark energy, using that wide field of view to monitor the skies for supernovae.
Making up for budget shortfalls
The telescopes could effectively take the place of a similar project that was having trouble getting funding known as Wfirst, for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, but could remain in a geosynchronous orbit rather than orbiting the sun.
The plan would still require the approval of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences, but it could prove a major boon for an agency that has had to cancel some major projects recently.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that NASA recently had to pull the plug on the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer, an X-ray telescope that was intended to search for evidence of black holes, among other things.
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