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Beyond Hubble

March 13, 2004

Incredible Ultra Deep Field photos capturing a chaotic scramble of galaxies colliding and reforming have intensified a crusade to save the Hubble telescope.

In a few years, batteries and gyroscopes aboard the 14-year-old telescope are expected to fail. Before it tumbles out of orbit in about a decade, a robotic rocket is supposed to tug the Hubble to a blazing crash in the Pacific.

There had been plans for a space shuttle mission in 2006 to replenish the Hubble's batteries, replace its gyroscopes and install state-of-the-art equipment. But new shuttle safety guidelines drafted since the death of seven astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia ended those plans. NASA will focus remaining shuttle missions on completion of the international space station -- the first step in a long-range plan to send astronauts to Mars.

At a recent Senate subcommittee hearing, Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., urged the agency to reconsider scrapping the Hubble. Such sentiment is understandable. The telescope has returned awe-inspiring photos of the heavens, advanced astronomy by light years and connected with the public in ways that few other space exploits have.

But NASA's shuttle safety guidelines should not be ignored. Other space- and ground-based telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2011, can engage in much of the same research. NASA should refocus its efforts on a next-generation Hubble II, perhaps one on or near the space station or as part of a lunar base, where it can be safely serviced.

The Hubble has admirably done its duty. Now it's time to take the next step.

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