Above: Hubble floating in its majestic beauty.
NASA got an early birthday present from the National Reconnaissance Office last week: two unflown Hubble-quality space telescopes. It's sort of one of those awkward gifts that you should be really excited about but deep down you know it's impractical. NASA doesn't have room in its budget to get the telescopes flight ready, let alone launch them.
The telescopes, which were built in the 1990s and 2000s by private contractors, are slightly younger than Hubble, which was built in the 1980s, although the three share certain features like 7.9 foot (2.4 meter) mirrors. But the NRO telescopes boast a significantly greater field of view — 100 times larger than Hubble's — because of their short and squat structure. The hardware on all three telescopes is the same size, but the NRO pair has newer, lighter mirrors. The one place Hubble outshines its younger versions is with its maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more-focused images.
The NRO telescopes are also also "space qualified," according to NASA. Qualified, maybe, but unfortunately they’re a long way away from being functional. They don't have any instruments: no cameras, no solar panels, no pointing controls. If NASA launched them now, they wouldn't do a thing. It will take a fair bit of engineering to turn these into proper upward-looking space telescopes.
But technical shortcomings aren't the only factor keeping these telescopes on the ground. Funding is a major issue. There isn't a program in place to support these telescopes. To fly, they need a to be part of a related scientific program, have support staff, the capacity for data analysis, and mundane things like office space from which to run the mission.
So while NASA figures out what to do with the telescopes, they will stay in storage. Resting in a climate controlled clean room to be exact.
The NRO hasn’t released any images of the still-classified ‘scopes, so here’s about as good a celebration of Hubble as there is out there.
There's an obvious draw to getting these telescopes mission ready and in space. Hubble is coming up to the end of its lifetime. Meanwhile, its replacement telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), has gone well over budget and is years from launch. Webb is a massive telescope designed to orbit 1 million miles from Earth. That's far too far for astronauts to reach it for repairs, but from that vantage point it will be able to make clear observations in the mid-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum from the farthest reaches of the Universe.
For now, JWST isn't scheduled to launch until 2018, more than four years later than its original launch target. When it does launch, the price tag is expected to be somewhere in the $9 billion region. So while JWST readies for launch, having two Hubble-quality replacements ready to go would be fantastic to keep NASA's eyes working in the skies.
If NASA does decide to find a way to launch its new telescopes, it won't happen for a while. The budget the way it is right now, the space agency won't have enough money for such an undertaking until at least 2024. If NASA suddenly gets more money from Congress it could happen sooner, but it's unlikely.
But enough about a hopeful future analyzing light from across the universe. If these telescopes are far from flight ready, what exactly are they equipped for? We, the hoi polloi, don't know. The telescopes have been declassified, but they're still sensitive enough that neither the NRO nor NASA has provided a photograph. Some components were removed from before the telescopes were transferred to NASA, but even that information is classified.
Announcement of the telescope transfer raised some questions as to why an intelligence agency would give away two Hubble-class telescopes. It also reminds us that NASA isn't the only space agency in town. Analysts think that the United States spends more money on space operations in the military and intelligence arena than on the civilian program, which may explain why the NRO had the excess telescopes to begin with.
Without some excess money, those telescopes won't observe anything but the inside of a storage room. But I guess it's the thought that counts, right?