Letter | Telescopes from NRO Can Help Bring NASA Astrophysics Goals within Reach

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NASA’s acquisition of residual space telescope hardware from the National Reconnaissance Office [“Donated Space Telescopes are Remnants of Failed NRO Program,” June 11, page 4] is highly enabling for future astronomy missions that study the origin and evolution of the cosmos, the fundamental laws of nature and whether we are alone in the universe. With appropriate modification and optimized instrumentation for astronomical observations, these assets could help accelerate top-priority science investigations recommended in the National Research Council’s 2010 decadal survey, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics.”

Most of the funding needed for development, launch and science operations for these missions would ostensibly come from the budget wedge that is expected to open up when the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018. However, significant work can be accomplished with relatively modest resources prior to that time, to accommodate a second Lagrange point or geosynchronous orbit most useful for astronomical surveys, and to select and commence the instrumentation procurement, which will define the critical path through much of the construction. This approach also ensures that development work will be able to ramp up rapidly as soon as the eventual budget wedge becomes available.

By necessity, NASA will need to look these gift horses in the mouth, and modify the hardware to achieve the performance requirements of the astronomical measurements to be pursued or adapt the investigation approaches somewhat to accommodate the expected performance of the pre-existing hardware. Nevertheless, these assets — with their superior light-gathering capability, high spatial resolution and large field of view — aggressively jump-start launching space astronomy’s next-generation wide-field infrared survey and ultraviolet-visible Hubble Space Telescope replacements that will continue NASA’s rich legacy of frontier cosmic discovery and U.S. leadership in space science.

 

Jon Morse

Troy , N.Y.