NASA Mulls Missions for Donated Spy Satellite Telescopes

SPACE.com
NASA Mulls Missions for Donated Spy Satellite Telescopes
.

View photo

The Hubble Space Telescope got one last overhaul in May 2009 by NASA astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis and has been sending home stunning new photos ever since. Seen here, the iconic space telescope orbits high above the Earth, after it

NASA is sorting through a variety of possible uses for a pair of powerful spy satellite telescopes that fell into the agency's lap last year.

In November, NASA asked scientists to suggest missions for the telescopes, which were donated by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and are comparable in size and appearance to the famous Hubble Space Telescope.

More than 60 serious proposals came flooding in, the most promising of which were presented in early February at the Study on Applications of Large Space Optics (SALSO) workshop in Huntsville, Ala. [Declassified U.S. Spy Satellites (Gallery)]

"There was a lot of excitement in the scientific community when these were transferred to NASA, because they are world-class, Hubble-class telescopes, optics," said SALSO project manager George Fletcher, of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The two scopes were originally built to carry out surveillance missions under a multibillion-dollar NRO program called Future Imagery Architecture. But cost overruns and delays killed the program in 2005, and NASA announced in June 2012 that the NRO had bequeathed the instruments to the space agency.

While the telescopes' 8-foot-wide (2.4 meters) main mirrors are comparable to that of Hubble, the NRO instruments are designed to have a much wider field of view, NASA officials have said.

Seven big ideas

The ideas presented at the SALSO workshop fall into seven broad categories, meeting organizers and a technical review team determined:

  • Mars-orbiting space telescope
  • Exoplanet observatory
  • General-purpose faint object explorer
  • Advanced, Hubble-like visible light/ultraviolet telescope
  • Optical communications node in space (which would aid transmissions to and from deep-space assets)
  • Geospace dynamic observatory (which would study space weather and the sun-Earth system)
  • Research of Earth's upper atmosphere (from a spot aboard the International Space Station)

The SALSO workshop did not look into another possible use — incorporating one of the NRO scopes into NASA's proposed $1.5 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a high-priority mission that would hunt for exoplanets and probe the mysteries of dark energy — because a separate research team is already investigating this possibility.

The results of that second study, known as AFTA (Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets), are expected any day now. Once AFTA is done, a more serious examination of the ideas presented at SALSO can begin.

"Completion and release of the AFTA study report are planned for late April or early May," NASA officials wrote in a post-SALSO update in March. "In the meantime, possible detailed follow-on design studies of a subset of the SALSO concepts will be deferred until this integrated assessment can be carried out."

A long road to launch

Whatever missions NASA ultimately assigns to the NRO scopes, the instruments are a long way from launch.

For starters, they're far from being fully outfitted spacecraft.

"There are no instruments on these two telescopes — just primary and secondary mirrors and the support structures," Fletcher told SPACE.com. "It's going to take a while to develop the instruments and integrate them into the structure."

Further, the funding to bring the scopes up to speed, launch them into space and maintain their operations has not been granted. And in today's tough budget climate, there's no guarantee that it will be.

"At this point, we're just hoping that Congress can see their way to give enough money to handle these, to do something useful with these, or that the [Obama] Administration can find enough money somewhere else in the budget," Fletcher said. "But with budget realities the way they are, it's a bit of a challenge."

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebookor Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
View Comments (89)

Recommended for You

  • Hurricane-strength winds pummel Europe, four killed

    By Michael Hogan HAMBURG (Reuters) - At least four people were killed on Tuesday when hurricane-force winds lashed northern Europe in one of the most severe storms in years, forcing flights to be canceled and disrupting road, train and marine traffic. The Dutch meteorological office issued a red…

    Reuters
  • United States sets official strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday published plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, part of a strategy to generate momentum for a global agreement later this year on combating climate change. The formal…

    Reuters
  • Air and sea traffic disrupted as 120 km winds batter Netherlands

    Spring storms battered the Netherlands with gusts of up to 120 kilometers an hour on Tuesday, causing Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to cancel flights and the closure of two container terminals at the port of Rotterdam. Gale force winds sweeping in from the North Sea disrupted land and marine…

    Reuters
  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; 17 dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Heavy rains and a landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed 17 people, police said on Tuesday, as Indian authorities continued working to rescue stranded villagers, with unseasonal rains raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. …

    Reuters
  • Ocean warming suggests 50 percent chance of El Nino-Australia

    By Colin Packham SYDNEY (Reuters) - Recent warming of the Pacific Ocean may signal an El Nino weather event is forming, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said on Tuesday. Climate models indicate the central tropical Pacific Ocean is likely to continue to warm, with El Nino thresholds to be…

    Reuters
  • Vanuatu risks long-term food insecurity after monster cyclone: U.N.

    By Alisa Tang BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The monster cyclone that hit Vanuatu earlier this month wiped out more than 90 percent of the archipelago's crops, putting its people at risk of a secondary emergency and long-term food insecurity, the United Nations warned on Monday. Tropical…

    Reuters
  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; six dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - A landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed six people and left 10 missing, police said on Monday, as unseasonal rains swept India, damaging crops and raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. Hundreds of people fled their homes…

    Reuters
  • Harsh weather cripples fishing and tourism on Cameroon's coast

    By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame KRIBI, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For over 15 years, Raoul Meno has been fishing the waters off the coastal town of Kribi in southern Cameroon. A bout of persistent heavy rains and surging tides this year has made fishing in Kribi increasingly difficult and…

    Reuters
  • Air Canada plane landed short, hit antennas in Halifax accident

    By Mark Blinch HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - An Air Canada plane that suffered heavy damage in an accident in the east coast city of Halifax on Sunday landed short of the runway and hit an antenna array, losing its landing gear, safety officials said. "They touched down 1,100 feet (335 meters)…

    Reuters
  • U.S. to submit plans to fight global warming; most others delay

    By Alister Doyle and Valerie Volcovici OSLO/WASHINGTON - The United States will submit plans for slowing global warming to the United Nations early this week but most governments will miss an informal March 31 deadline, complicating work on a global climate deal due in December. The U.S.…

    Reuters
  • Modi's popularity in rural India punctured by discontent, suicides

    By Mayank Bhardwaj VAIDI, India (Reuters) - Over a dozen debt-laden farmers have committed suicide in recent weeks in India, and discontent in many rural areas against government policies is turning into anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi less than a year after he swept into office. …

    Reuters
  • Chile desert rains sign of climate change: chief weather scientist

    By Rosalba O'Brien SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The heavy rainfall that battered Chile's usually arid north this week happened because of climate change, a senior meteorologist said, as the region gradually returns to normal after rivers broke banks and villages were cut off. "For Chile, this particular…

    Reuters
  • Mexico unveils national strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexico on Friday said it will cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2026, becoming one of the first countries to formally submit its national climate plan to the United Nations ahead of a climate summit in Paris in December. Mexico's Foreign and…

    Reuters
  • Fed must take account of global economy in U.S. outlook: Yellen

    SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve must take the global economy into account when judging the U.S. domestic outlook, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday, noting that a stronger dollar buoyed by weakness abroad may restrain U.S. exports Still, she added, U.S. consumer…

    Reuters
  • In reversal, crash-hit Lufthansa agrees to two-crew in cockpit rule

    Lufthansa said on Friday it would introduce new rules requiring two crew members in cockpits at all times, a swift reversal after its CEO said such a change was not needed despite the crash at its Germanwings subsidiary. The European Union said it would now advise all EU airlines to require two…

    Reuters
  • Sierra Leone capital 'eerily quiet' amid Ebola lockdown

    By Umaru Fofana FREETOWN (Reuters) - The capital of Sierra Leone was "eerily quiet" on Friday at the start of a three-day national lockdown aimed at accelerating the end of an Ebola epidemic in the worst affected country. Liberia has just one known case left and the three countries have set a…

    Reuters
  • Lufthansa to toughen up cockpit rules

    Lufthansa said it will introduce new rules requiring two crew members to be in the cockpit at all times after one of the pilots at its Germanwings unit crashed a plane in the French Alps. Prosecutors believe Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked himself alone in the cockpit of the Airbus A320 on Tuesday and…

    Reuters
  • Poland to charge two Russian officials over Kaczynski plane crash

    Poland said on Friday it would bring charges against two Russian air traffic controllers over a 2010 plane crash which killed then Polish president Lech Kaczynski, a move likely to damage bilateral relations already strained by the Ukraine crisis. Prosecutor Ireneusz Szelag from the District…

    Reuters
  • Drought, warm weather bring 'smog day' memories in California

    By Sharon Bernstein KINGS COUNTY, Calif. (Reuters) - The brown haze over California's San Joaquin Valley breadbasket on some winter days has been an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days, when pollution hung so thickly that people were warned to stay inside. Years of tight environmental rules…

    Reuters
  • India turns to 'satellite god' for crop mapping

    By Ratnajyoti Dutta NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sher Singh, a farmer from India's desert state of Rajasthan, prays to Varuna, the Hindu god of water, for a bountiful harvest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to promote a "per drop, more crop" approach to farming to make better use of scarce water,…

    Reuters