Heat over Hubble. Experts disagree on future of space telescope.

Hubble Troubles Juggled

The future of the Hubble Space Telescope is becoming murkier and more contentious. That much was obvious at a hearing yesterday before the House Science Committee, where participants disagreed over whether and how to service the aging spacecraft, what each option would cost, and how to pay for it.

Sean O'Keefe, set to give up his job as NASA administrator this month, caused a stir last year when he canceled a repair mission by astronauts that would keep Hubble's instruments running until a new telescope is launched. In response to pressure from lawmakers, he suggested a robotic mission would be a safer bet than sending humans. That proposal got the thumbs down in December, when a National Academy of Sciences' panel called the robotic option too complex and costly.Many scientists want the Hubble repaired--but not at the expense of other science projects. Joseph Taylor, a Princeton University astronomer who co-chaired the academy's 2000 astronomy decadal study, says he opposes any servicing "if it requires major delays or reordering" of NASA's future astronomy missions. Neither a new telescope nor a servicing mission "should be a higher priority" than the James Webb Space Telescope or Constellation-X, another planned NASA telescope, he stated. But he added that if the money comes from a source other than NASA science projects, he would have no objections.

Astronomer Colin Norman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore told lawmakers that the best choice is replacing Hubble with a $1 billion telescope to be launched in 2010. The telescope, dubbed Hubble Origins Probe (HOP), would examine dark energy, dark matter, and planets around other stars. He noted that Japan has offered to help pay for HOP, reducing the cost to NASA.

Lawmakers pledged to press NASA officials on how they would allocate Hubble servicing costs during a 17 February hearing on the agency's 2006 budget. Most House Science Committee members seem to be in the same boat as committee chair and Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who called himself an "agnostic" on what direction to take. Even so, lawmakers may be forced before the end of the year to choose a Hubble religion.

with reporting by Robert Irion

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Details of the hearing