NASA Gets Two Military Spy Telescopes for Astronomy [The Washington Post]

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The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has given NASA two Hubble-sized spy telescopes that the NRO built but never launched, the Washington Post and New York Times reported June 4.

The unusual donation was discussed at a meeting in Washington of the National Research Council’s Committee of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which advises NASA on science priorities.

According to the Washington Post, the two surplus telescopes both have 2.4-meter primary mirrors, the same diameter of Hubble’s.

“They also have an additional feature that the civilian space telescopes lack: A maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more focused images,” the Washington Post reported.

“The two new telescopes — which so far don’t even have names, other than Telescope One and Telescope Two — would be ready to go into space but for two hitches. First, they don’t have instruments. There are no cameras, spectrographs or other instruments that a space telescope typically needs. Second, they don’t have a program, a mission or a staff behind them. They’re just hardware,” the Washington Post reported, quoting NASA officials who said 2020 is the earliest the agency could conceivably afford launching one of them.

The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that the surplus telescopes and some spare parts are stored in a clean room at ITT Exilis Geospatial System in Rochester, N.Y.

The New York Times quotes Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, calling them “Stubby Hubbles” since the telescopes have the same sized primary mirror, but a shorter focal length, giving them a wider field of view.

Hubble, weighing some 11,000 kilograms at launch, was carried into orbit in April 1990 by a space shuttle piloted by current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told the Times that his initial reaction was that the gifted telescopes would be a distraction.

“‘We were getting something very expensive to handle and store,’ he said.

“Earlier this spring, he asked a small group of astronomers if one of the telescopes could be used to study dark energy.

“The answer, he said, was: ‘Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect.’”