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Tue, May 11, 2004

Robotic Mission To Save Hubble Becomes More Likely

NASA: It Could Happen

Edward Weiler, NASA associate administrator for space science, puts it like this: "I'm not saying it's a done deal. A lot of water needs to go under the bridge, but it's looking a lot better than it did two months ago."

He's talking about the possibility of a rescue mission to the Hubble Space Telescope -- one that wouldn't involve the space shuttles or human beings, for that matter. But by his statement, it seems pretty clear that NASA is quickly warming up to the idea of a robotic mission to the space telescope.

Two months ago, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center asked contractors for proposals on sending a robot to Hubble to replace the gyros and batteries. "There was no one silver bullet, no one right answer," Weiler was quoted by the Washington Post as saying. "I was skeptical... but... the technologies we need are out there."

NASA got 26 proposals in return. They include:

  • Robonaut

Developed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston (TX), this robot has five fingers, looks rather human and is designed to replace humans on space walks.

  • Ranger

The University of Maryland's 25-foot tall robot can stand on a platform tied to the Hubble and reach everywhere it needs to reach to replace the Hubble's batteries and gyros.

  • Dextre

Short for the Canadian Space Agency's Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, this robot has arms that reach 10-feet from a sort of torso. Remember, the Canadians designed the robot arms on the space shuttles and the International Space Station -- these guys have experience where experience is hard to come by. Dextre, however, has never been built. It was supposed to be assembled aboard the ISS next year. The Columbia's demise, however, put those plans on hold.

"I suspect they're going to pick and choose to come up with a synthesis that's better than any of the individual plans," aerospace engineer David Akin, told the Post. He leads the Ranger project at the University of Maryland's Space Systems Laboratory. "It's the same with every mission -- the devil's in the details."

As ANN reported earlier, time is of the essence. NASA says there's a 50-percent chance Hubble will have just one functioning gyro by the middle of 2006. There are six on board and the vehicle needs three to maintain the attitude necessary for the telescope to remain useful.

Space shuttles have been dispatched to fix and upgrade the space telescope. All had their risks, but then, all had humans to judge the risks and take the necessary chances.

You can't underestimate the complexity and the dangers," former astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman told the Post. Hoffman is an aerospace engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who made three space walks to repair Hubble in 1993. "Suppose you open a door but can't put in the new instrument. Now you've got a light leak, and you've lost your telescope."

The drop-dead date for servicing the Hubble is the last quarter of 2007. Beyond that, NASA doesn't think the vehicle's batteries will hold a charge. If that becomes the case before NASA can mount a rescue mission -- manned or robotic -- Hubble is a goner. And then there's the question of where it might land.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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