Brussels, 20 Jan 2004
The US national aeronautics space administration (NASA) has announced that it will no longer launch servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, instead allowing its systems to slowly degrade and, ultimately, fail.
Contrary to a number of reports, the move is not related to US President George Bush's new space strategy, outlined on 14 January. Rather, the decision was taken in light of recommendations following the investigation into the Colombia space shuttle disaster in February 2003.
The investigation concluded that all future manned shuttle missions must allow for inspection and, if necessary, repair of the craft following launch. In the case of Hubble, which needs servicing every few years to repair worn out parts, new systems would have to be specially developed in order to meet this requirement.
'NASA decided that doing so was not commensurate with extending Hubble's lifetime until the deployment of [its replacement] the James Webb space telescope, as was originally foreseen,' Anton Linssen, from the European Space Agency (ESA) scientific directorate, told CORDIS News.
The plan had been to maintain Hubble until the launch of the new infrared observatory in August 2011. While it appears unlikely that Hubble's instruments will remain operational beyond 2008, Mr Linssen stressed: 'Hubble is operating fantastically at the moment. Some systems are critical in terms of lifetime, but it is impossible to know how long it will keep producing data.'
While the scientific community has reacted with sadness to the news of Hubble's demise, it is somewhat offset by the hope that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will allow them to determine the shape of the universe and better understand the birth and formation of stars.
As one of the most successful projects in NASA's history, however, Hubble will be a tough act to follow. It has vastly improved human understanding of the universe, allowing us to better calculate its age and rate of expansion, providing proof of the existence of black holes, and giving us new insight into the birth and death of stars.
Indeed, as recently as 16 January, Hubble obtained the deepest view of the universe ever seen, revealing to astronomers the youngest and most distant galaxies. Achievements such as these ensure that many people will be paying their final respects when Hubble ultimately falls to Earth after two decades of cosmic discovery.
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