A senior review by outside experts has recommended that NASA extend the operating life of the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes.

If NASA accepts the recommendations, which seems likely, Kepler would get another four years of life. That is a major extension for the exoplanet telescope, which was originally designed for a 3.5-year mission. Kepler has been in orbit for just over three years.

The four-year extension will allow Kepler to observe exoplanets in longer-term orbit. Kepler is the only space telescope currently dedicated to exoplanet research. There are no funded plans for follow-on telescopes, either. NASA has proposed concepts such as Planet Finder in the past, but those concepts remain in limbo due to Congressional inaction. The official lack of interest in Planet Finder seems puzzling, given the public fascination with exoplanet research and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

The Kepler mission extension will be of great to citizen scientists who are helping to analyze Kepler data through the Planet Hunters website. Last September, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society announced that citizen scientists had identified two new exoplanets, a first for citizen science.

The Hubble life extension will also be welcomed by astronomers, although the 22-year-old Hubble can’t last indefinitely without another servicing mission. With the retirement of the Shuttle, NASA has no plans to service Hubble again. Hence, its retirement seems inevitable. New commercial space capsules being developed by companies such as SpaceX and Boeing might be used to reach Hubble, but those capsule’s lack the Shuttle’s large work platform and remote manipulator arm. That would make servicing the Hubble extremely challenging. NASA has given no consideration to such a mission, although it has studied the even more challenging prospect of servicing Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, using the Orion capsule.

If NASA is not interested in servicing Hubble again, perhaps a private foundation might decide to fund such a mission. The cost of a SpaceX servicing mission would be similar to some of the larger donations Foundations have made to astronomy in recent years. If NASA wants to engage in out-of-the-box thinking, perhaps it should offer to rename the Hubble Space Telescope for any private donor that finances its servicing and continued operation.


Written by Astro1 on April 5th, 2012 , Astronomy

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