CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is looking beyond its budget-restricted astrophysics division for ways to make use of two Hubble-class telescopes originally designed as spy satellites for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The two telescopes, both equipped with 2.4-meter primary mirrors, cannot be used for imaging Earth, but pretty much anything else is on the table.
“We’re hoping that that there are people out there who think of things that are really interesting that we haven’t thought of,” NASA’s astrophysics division chief Paul Hertz said in an interview. “That’s the whole point of asking other people to help us. We don’t think we have all the answers.”
One study already is under way to explore if one of the donor telescopes can be used for NASA’s planned $1.5 billion to $2 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) dark-energy mission, the National Academy of Sciences’ top choice in its most recent decadal survey for a large astrophysics space mission.
NASA, however, cannot start another big astrophysics project until development of the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is nearing completion. That observatory is now targeted for launch in 2018.
On Nov. 27, NASA issued a much broader solicitation for ideas and set a deadline of Jan. 7 to receive abstracts. The formal request for information is open to all parties, not just NASA personnel.
“This is about as wide an aperture for ideas as you could imagine,” said Michael Moore, NASA’s assistant director for innovation and technology.
“One of the things we’re trying to find out in this second study is if there are things that might make sense external to the astrophysics activity. Astrophysics is limited in its ability to do anything based on pre-existing project developments in our budget. The rest of the agency has potentially more flexibility,” Moore said.
“Can you use the hardware to address things that are being done in advanced technology development or with humans or with robotics? That expands the universe of potential users. There are interesting things you can do for other reasons that wouldn’t be science-driven necessarily,” he said.
But using the telescopes to look back at Earth — the NRO’s originally intended purpose for the hardware —- is off limits. “We can’t use it for an Earth-observing program,” Moore said.
The telescopes’ NRO parentage also imposes some restrictions on mission concepts involving non-U.S. participation. “The hardware has been declassified, so that we can make use of it on our open science program, but it’s still subject to export control, so we need to retain possession and control of it,” Hertz said. “That doesn’t preclude us from partnering [with other countries], it just sets boundaries on the nature of the partnership.”
Beyond WFIRST, scientists are interested in turning an NRO telescope into an observatory to directly image Earth-sized extrasolar planets, said Princeton University’s David Spergel, who organized a workshop in September to vet ideas for the telescopes.
“You could add a coronagraph or occulter to block out the light from a host star so you could image the light from a planet,” Spergel told SpaceNews.
The extrasolar planet-hunter could be a stand-alone mission, or piggybacked on WFIRST.
Another proposal is to outfit the telescope with ultraviolet detectors and follow up some of the tantalizing discoveries about interstellar gas and star formation made by the Hubble observatory.
“This is an area that detectors have gotten much more sensitive,” Spergel said.
Other scientists would like to use one of the donated telescopes for a heliophysics mission that would look at Earth’s magnetic field and monitor how it changes in response to solar activity.
“There’s any number of uses that you can imagine that you can take advantage of these things,” Moore said.
NASA plans to follow its solicitation with a workshop in February before selecting a few ideas for study.