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.
I’m not what you’d call a big traveller, the longest trip of my life was done just last year and only lasted 4 weeks, but I’ve still been to more places than both my parents combined. I have the commoditization of air travel to thank for that and it’s the reason why many Australians of my generation spent their early twenties in other countries. Like any traveller I’m always keen to dive right into the culture of the place I’m visiting and always want to bring back a momento that’s distinctly from that country. Since I have a distaste for useless things and a heavy interest in tech my options are usually pretty limited though, especially when I go to places that are supposed to be tech centres.
Most recently I saw myself in Singapore for business and thought this would be a good opportunity to grab some of the gadgets I hadn’t bought yet (I.E. a Motorola Xoom). I knew I could get it online for just under $600 so I figured if I could get it for that or within 10% more it would be worth it so I set out to 2 of the biggest technology malls in search of one. The first one I tried was Sim Lim Square, and whilst the number of IT shops there was astounding I failed to find anyone willing to sell me the tablet for less than SG$900 (~AUD$684). It was also a bit of a challenge to find one in the first place since most places didn’t stock it, favoring instead the new Acer Iconia. My frolic through the Funan DigitalLife Mall prove to be equally as irritating, so I ended up leaving there empty handed.
I had similar frustrations looking for some distinctly Singaporean gifts to bring back from my travels. This could be due to the heavy amount of westernization that Singapore has undergone but even trolling through local markets had me finding the same items I could either get online or back in Australia. It’s not just limited to Singapore either, any business running in a modern country is more than likely going to have some kind of web presence which will allow you to get their products without having to enter the country. Thus the actual value of travelling to a location to get things that you can only get there is somewhat diminished, especially if you’re someone with particular tastes like me.
My wife and I had the same trouble when travelling through the USA. We struggled to find anything that they couldn’t get elsewhere and indeed many of the gifts we ended up bringing back could have easily been acquired with 10 minutes on the Internet and a credit card. Sure people are still appreciative of things that have made the journey from faraway lands (especially if you carry them yourselves) but it just seems unnecessary when you could have the package make that same journey without taking up space in your suitcase.
Perhaps its just a result of my particular tastes and chosen travel destinations but the more I travel the more I get the feeling that the world is becoming far more homogenous thanks to the communication revolution of the Internet. It’s also just good business on the part of the multi-nationals who can afford to have a presence anywhere they choose which explains why I continue to see the same products and brands nearly everywhere I go.
Maybe I’m just pointlessly ranting about the diminishing value of travel or perhaps I’m getting crotchety in my old age, not wanting to travel because I like what I’ve got back at home. Both are valid points and looking over this post it does seem kind of a silly point to make. Still though I think there’s something in the idea that the world is becoming more homogenous thanks to the better flow of information and that one of the flow on effects is that the idea of bringing gifts back from overseas is now a quaint notion that could soon be seen as an outdated custom.
Or maybe I’m just shit at finding good places to shop, that’d work too 😉