A lot of people are scratching their heads trying to figure out the value, if any, of the two 2.4-meter  Hubble-class  telescopes recently donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office.

As noted by Sky and Telescope, a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope was one of the most important missions identified by the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. One or both of the NRO telescopes could fulfill that role.

Of course, a free telescope is like a free puppy. The telescopes currently lack both instrumentation and housekeeping, according to Sky and Telescope. And, of course, they require a ride to orbit.

These aren’t the only “free” telescopes to come out of the black world. There’s also a 120-inch (3-meter) Segmented Mirror Space Telescope which NRO donated to the Naval Postgraduate School.

What are the chances of NASA (or someone else) flying one of these telescopes?

Launch costs may be the smallest concern, if SpaceX continues to be successful. Instrumentation is a bigger problem

Or is it? When government space agencies build a satellite, they often build backup copies of major instruments, in case a problem detected in a primary instrument pre-launch. If the backup is not needed, it goes into storage. Has anyone performed an inventory of instruments that might already be sitting in the vault? (Most likely not.)

Turning to less conventional thinking, there are instruments that are already in space, which may still be functional but attached to satellites that are nonfunctional or aging. The DARPA Phoenix program aims to demonstrate technology for harvesting components from aging satellites. Perhaps there are useful astronomical instruments on orbit, which could be harvested by robots or astronauts.

Finally, there’s the housekeeping component. As Sky and Telescope says, the telescope needs solar arrays for power, communications with Earth, and a guidance and maneuvering system to point it in the right direction.

Or does it? That assumes the telescope is deployed in orbit. Thinking outside the box, what if it were placed on the Moon instead? (Putting astronomical instruments on the Moon is something NASA has studied in the past.)

Current insider thinking says that these telescopes could not be deployed until after the James Webb Space Telescope (around 2020-2022). So, we needn’t be too constrained in our thinking.

Written by Astro1 on June 8th, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation

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    morganism commented

    I like the idea of a Venus orbit IR satt for NEO hunting. Even with Planetary Resources covey up there, a dedicated, wide field, near space hunter would be a fabulous addition to the science, and safety, of the community.

    If we had a space tug, we could use the other one to do a continuous orbit in the asteroid belt, building up a map, and a census for future missions and mining. Could also put a big re-transmitter on it for deep space mission relay.

    The prob with that, is you need a better power supply than solar, and the RTG thing is going to be troublesome for a few more years.

    Enter the Brillouin heater. We have been doing thermoelectric for years on outer missions. Heat generation on an IR telescope is a pain, but easier to deal with than flexion and pointing issues.


    June 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm