The Hubble Space Telescope stands with the Shuttle as one of the most iconic space craft of the past 2 decades. It has been an amazing boon to science giving us images into the far reaches of space, revealing much about the universe that we would not have known without it. For all it has given us however it is starting to show its age after being in space for a continuous 22 years and the last decade has been dedicated to building a successor. Currently the craft lined up to replace it is the James Webb Space Telescope and whilst its a worthy replacement it’s nothing like the Hubble, for better and for worse.
You see Hubble really is a fully fledged observatory in space being able to capture several different wavelengths of light. This is why we’re able to get those gorgeous pictures out of it as the light it sees is pretty close to what our eyes can see. It’s not exact though as the various filters used to create the images are more aligned to detecting distinct spectral emissions so we end up with images made in what’s called the Hubble Palette. The JWST on the other hand is a pure infrared telescope which is great for studying distant and faint objects but is incapable of producing anything like the Hubble does. To really replace Hubble we’d need a telescope, or maybe even a couple specialized ones working in tandem, that covered a similar array of spectra.
Turns out the National Reconnaissance Office had a couple of these spare.
It might come as a bit of a surprise that the US Department of Defense (of which the NRO is a child agency) has a space program that rivals that of NASA in terms of scale and budget, but it has been that way for some time now. Of course their objectives are decidedly different with NASA being focused on science and exploration and the DoD more interested in the intelligence gathering prospects. It seems that as part of their spy satellite programs they have produced 2 telescopes with Hubble like capabilities that they no longer require (they have not been launched and returned as we have had no missions capable of performing such a task) and have gifted them to NASA. The question now is what to do with these 2 potential Hubble replacements, lest the gift be wasted.
Now these things aren’t exactly ready to fly satellites, they’re basically skeletons ready to be molded into whatever shape NASA wants them to be in. So the basics are there like the housing and the primary (and secondary, something Hubble didn’t have) mirror array but it’s missing crucial parts like the sensors, communication systems and I’m guessing stationkeeping equipment. So there’s a large parcel of work that’s already been done, and no doubt anyone who was looking to build a satellite would love to have this much done for them for free, but to actually get these things flight ready will take quite some time and, most importantly, some budget. If the required funds were found immediately NASA believes they’d be ready to launch no earlier than 2020, or a turnaround time of about 8 years.
Personally I believe that we’d be best served by configuring both telescopes to be identical and then launch them as a stereoscopic pair that could perform in space interferometry. This would allow us to surpass the capabilities of Hubble significantly and would open up imaging opportunities that just weren’t available otherwise. Of course we’d probably be better suited designing a whole new telescope with an even larger mirror array than the two combined but with NASA struggling to complete the JWST on time I can’t see that happening for anytime in the near future. Using these two proto-Hubbles would be an excellent solution for the interim however.
It’s not often that some like this happens so it will be very interesting to see what NASA does with these skeleton telescopes. I would love to see a visible spectrum telescope up there to replace the Hubble after it returns to Earth in a fiery blaze of glory but there are just as many other worthwhile goals for these little beauties. Whatever their fate I’m glad that they’re now in the hands of NASA as they’ll do a lot more good for mankind as science vessels than they ever would as spies.
Just under a year ago I wrote about the diminutive cousin of the soon to be retired space shuttle the X-37B. It’s been an unusually popular post on my blog, seeming to grab everyone’s attention every time someone makes a mention of the X-37B. Today was no exception and of course I had to why this secretive craft was causing such a ruckus again. The last couple times it was nothing more than it changing its orbit so I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Turns out that 2 days ago the X-37B launched on its second mission into space atop an ATLAS-V rocket, its ultimate purpose still remaining a classified secret.
The launch was meant to take place on Friday but was delayed due to low clouds. Although I’ve mentioned in the past that launches can be delayed due to weather I’ve never properly explained why that is the case. You see back in the days of the American moonshot launches happened on schedule regardless of weather conditions. This led to Apollo 12 launching during a heavy rainstorm and although the craft was insulated against strikes (much like aircraft of the day were) it still triggered 2 lightning strikes that traveled the length of the craft and along the exhaust plume. The strike caused all 3 of the fuel cells to be disconnected and the only thing that kept the launch going was John Aaron‘s obscure call of “Try SCE to AUX” which only Alan Bean recognized. To avoid such problems in the future NASA now scrubs launches if there’s a significant chance of lightning strikes.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this mission since it’s all so hush-hush, but as far as the defense force is telling us it is testing equipment for future satellites. Undoubtedly all of those pieces of equipment have military purposes in mind leading many to speculate that the X-37B is the USA’s attempt at weaponizing space, which they have flatly denied. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were however as the Russians famously launched several space stations armed with varying levels of conventional weaponry. I’m more a fan of the X-37B being an orbital satellite capture device though as its payload bay is large enough to store one and bring it back to earth, as this infographic shows:
Credit: Karl Tate, space.com
The most interesting thing about this launch of the X-37B is the short turn around time it had from its last mission to its launch a couple days ago. After spending 224 days in space and returning in December last year its taken just under 3 months to get it flight ready and launched again. The shuttle by comparison takes much longer currently, usually upwards of 6 months (although the record stands at 8 weeks and the design was for a mere 2 weeks). This shows how smaller purpose built craft, even at the experimental stage, are far superior than jack-of-all-trades type crafts like the space shuttle is. Of course the shuttle was mired by strange military requirements that required it to do one orbit and return to earth, something which the X-37B doesn’t have to contend with.
Like its previous mission I’m sure the X-37B will provide amateur satellite trackers hours of fun over the course of the next 7 months or so. It will be interesting to see if it moves around in orbit as much as it did last time or if it delivers some payload into orbit (it certainly has the capability). The speculation is probably a lot more fun than the actual payload itself which is likely to be reconnaissance equipment since that’s really all the military does in space. Still if the military can see how well purpose built craft like the X-37B work then NASA can’t be far behind and hopefully their next generation of craft will reflect that.