Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Let's just build a new Hubble

What to do with Hubble? The debate over how to save this telescope has typically involved choosing between sending a robotic mission to service or de-orbit it or sending a shuttle mission to service it. So far NASA's choice is to send a robotic mission on the ground that a shuttle mission will not be safe enough under the new guidelines in effect since the Columbia disaster.

Now the National Academy of Sciences has weighed in on the side of sending a shuttle mission.

They have a point. The cost of sending a robot to the Hubble simply to de-orbit it has been estimated at about $300 million. However, the estimated cost of sending a robot to do the tricky repair work necessary to keep Hubble running is a hefty $1.6 to $2.3 billion. Worse than this is the fact that the work is so hard for a robot to do that the prospect of a successful robotic rescue mission is not good.

Shuttle astronauts have successfully serviced Hubble four times in the past. However, the cost of each of those missions has been about $1.3 billion, meaning Hubble's cost is $5.2 billion more than its original cost of $2 billion.

Hubble was designed to last about 15 years. It was launched in 1990 so 2005 is when it was designed to end anyway. For the life of me I don't understand why nobody on the inside is stepping back and simply recommending that we build a new Hubble and launch that into orbit. For the cost of fixing a telescope that is near the end of its designed useful life we could have a brand new telescope.

We shouldn't save Hubble. If people weren't so sentimental about Hubble, or weren't using it to advance an unrelated agenda (for instance the way my own Mars Society is using the issue to promote humans in space) we would look at this issue practically and scrap the old telescope and launch a new one. When you own an old car you don't spend as much money to fix it as it cost to buy it in the first place. You sell the old car and buy a new one. Why should it be any different for space telescopes?

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