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Is the Hubble Space Telescope Worth Saving?

In light of the most recent glitch on the Hubble Space Telescope, a serious equipment failure that means the observatory is unable to send data back to Earth, some are beginning to wonder: Is Hubble still worth saving?

The answer, according to many scientists, is yes.

The failure of a device called the Side A Science Data Formatter, used to send images and other data from Hubble back to Earth, is a problem, but likely one that can be fixed.

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The glitch was announced Monday by NASA. Engineers now plan to switch the observatory over to a spare "Side B" part currently on board, and perhaps send up a replacement device on the next space shuttle servicing mission, which had been scheduled for October but now has been delayed to early next year.

Glitches happen

Though it may sound like one setback too many for the aging observatory, scientists say Hubble still has a lot of life in it yet.

"Of course it's worth upgrading Hubble," said Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. "The part that failed even has as redundant side to it. If all goes well, science operations could be up as early as the end of this week. So you shouldn't worry about that. It's definitely not the end of the world."

The now-broken electronics box had been working steadily since the telescope launched in April 1990.

"These things happen. It's been up there in orbit, outside the protective atmosphere of the Earth for 18 years," said Heidi Hammel, an astronomer at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Co. "Glitches happen. It's an incredibly robust instrument. Think about your computers — you don't still use computers that are 18 years old."

Maybe we should give the old scope a break and forgive its failings now and then, since it has served us so well for so long, scientists say.

In fact, rather than be discouraged by the glitch, some are celebrating the fact that it occurred now, right before a planned upgrade mission.

If the malfunction had occurred after the shuttle mission to Hubble, then operations could still be switched over to the redundant part onboard, but that would leave the telescope without a backup if that part failed again, or if the spare part didn't work at all.

Now, though, scientists have the option of sending up a new device to replace the broken one, leaving the telescope in a less vulnerable position.

"It's probably better it failed now than the week after the servicing mission was done, but it does frustrate all of us that were looking forward to a mission two weeks from now," Hammel said in a phone interview. "But I'd rather we'd waited and did it right."

Worth the money?

The failure is not just costing more time, but also more money.

For every month NASA delays the shuttle servicing mission, Hubble's cost jumps by $10 million to keep ground systems running and a team in place.

But telescope team members argue that the bloat to Hubble's price tag is nowhere close to pushing it over the edge of costing more than it's worth.

"I don't see this failure as putting us over the fence and causing NASA to want to throw up its hands and say, 'Hey, all the hundreds of millions of dollars we've spent on the hardware and readiness for this mission, we're just gonna chuck it, you know, this is just a little too much for us,'" Preston Burch, Hubble manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told reporters at a Monday teleconference.

"We've got a lot of options here. I don't see [NASA officials] Ed Weiler and Mike Griffin or myself throwing in the towel because we've got to spend a few more tens of millions to pull this mission off. You know, I think we're definitely going after this."

Since all of the instruments planned to be installed during the servicing mission have already been built, and most of the training and preparations for the upgrade made, calling it off now would be a waste, many argue.

"We've got these new instruments that are ready to go, they're down there ready to fly," Hammel said. "I think it's absolutely worthwhile."

The engine still works

But some critics have questioned the wisdom of investing in keeping the aging Hubble going, when we could be spending money to build a brand new telescope to replace it.

Hubble has cost a total of about $10 billion over its lifetime, including its past servicing missions, estimated Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Its initial cost was about $1.6 billion, he said.

Given that the upcoming servicing mission will cost about $900 million, it could be seen as a bargain compared to building and launching a new observatory from scratch.

"The thing about telescopes is that the mirror is the main component," Hammel said. "Once that's built, you don't need to build new ones, you just need to swap out the instruments. There's nothing wrong with Hubble's mirror. It's great."

She compared a telescope with a working mirror to an old car with a good engine left. It makes more sense to swap out tires and other elements of the car than to simply buy a new one, since the most important element still functions fine.

"If at some point, there's a glitch that is not recoverable, then you're done, but as long as the glitches can be solved and repaired, it's sort of like an old car — you don't want to let it go when it's still running," she said.

And the upgrades to Hubble aren't coming at a sacrifice to building new telescopes. Plans for the James Webb Space Telescope are progressing; the roughly $4.5 billion observatory is currently slated to launch in 2013.

However, that observatory will work in the infrared range of light, rather than the visible like Hubble, so James Webb isn't really a replacement for Hubble, but a parallel instrument.

Hubble's last picture

Ultimately, scientists say the recent glitch doesn't darken Hubble's long-term prospects.

"I have no doubt that that we can service Hubble and make it into a telescope that will be even better than what Hubble has been so far," Livio told SPACE.com. "So far Hubble has been this amazing telescope that really changed all our views of the universe. I see the next five years as perhaps being even better than what we've seen."

Once the servicing mission has finally been completed, especially if the astronauts are able to install a new Side A Science Data Formatter, Hubble should be in the best shape it's ever been.

"If we are going to do this final servicing mission and spend the money involved and launch seven astronauts, we thought it would be proper due diligence if we assured that this mission would leave Hubble with a good solid five- or six- or seven-year future," Weiler said.

And, when the day comes that Hubble finally takes its last picture, scientists say they will know the whole endeavor had been worth it, because the telescope has already changed our understanding of the cosmos many times.

"The whole Hubble program has just been a fabulous testament to the NASA science community and the NASA astronaut community," Hammel said. "I hope things don't go wrong but if they do, we just have to accept that. The Hubble program has been so fantastically successful. It's more than what anyone expected."

Copyright © 2008 Imaginova Corp. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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