Washington: Signs are promising for a repair of the aging but popular
Hubble Space Telescope, once thought doomed because of worries over astronaut safety.
NASA set plans for a big announcement Tuesday after top officials met for three hours Friday to consider the value and risks of sending astronauts to repair the Hubble, extending its life for several more years.
The decision rests with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who hasn't yet made up his mind, NASA spokesman Dean Acosta said Friday in e-mail.
However, the space agency sent out a press release about a gala announcement ceremony for Tuesday at the Goddard Space Center in suburban Washington, which helps oversee the 16-year-old space telescope.
The NASA press release said the ceremony includes a "news conference with the astronauts who would carry out the mission"- if the agency decides to go ahead with a shuttle flight to rehab the telescope.
And Griffin has previously said, "If we can do it safely, we want to do it."
Griffin worked on Hubble earlier in his career and recently described it as "one of the great scientific instruments of all time."
Another good sign for fans of the space telescope is that US Sen Barbara Mikulski (news, bio, voting record), D-Md., one of Capitol Hill's most prominent supporters of saving it, will join Griffin at Goddard, her office said.
"I think they've decided yes, but they haven't done it officially," said University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomer Jay Gallagher, who is a member of a science team responsible for one of Hubble's cameras.
"Everything we've been hearing in our community is yes, so I'm hopeful that this is going to happen,” Gallagher added.
The issue that NASA officials had to wrestle with was shuttle safety. If the spacecraft heading to the aging telescope has a problem, there is no place to go for safe haven, unlike NASA's 14 remaining shuttle missions to the international space station.
Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe two and a half years ago canceled a repair mission amid the fallout from the 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts.
But plans to let the beloved observatory die a slow death sparked outrage among astronomers across the country, which lobbied loudly to keep it going.
Hubble's eye-popping images from space inspired broad public interest, and some experts say that for many Americans it represents some of the best of the space program.
If it goes forward, a Hubble servicing mission would have to be squeezed into the space station construction schedule sometime in early 2008.
NASA would have another shuttle on the launch pad, ready to make an emergency rescue trip if there were a catastrophic problem with the space shuttle.
A rehab mission would keep Hubble working until about 2013. It would add two new camera instruments, upgrade aging batteries and stabilising equipment, add new guidance sensors and repair a light-separating spectrograph, which stopped working in August 2004, said NASA spokesman Ed Campion.