Spy Telescopes Could Advance U.S. Dark Energy Mission

The two telescopes were designed to gaze down upon Earth from space to collect intelligence. Now, NASA hopes to repurpose the instruments to study dark energy, extrasolar planets, and a host of other questions in astronomy.

The telescopes were originally supposed to be deployed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which manages the nation's spy satellites, but were not needed. Last year, NRO offered the surplus instruments—each as big as the Hubble Space Telescope—as a gift to NASA. Over the past several months, NASA officials and a small group of astronomers have been developing a preliminary plan to use the telescopes as a component in the proposed Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission.

WFIRST was aimed at studying dark energy and exoplanets, but its estimated price tag of $1.5 billion and NASA's budget constraints had all but eliminated the possibility that NASA could pursue it before the mid-2020s. NRO's gift has revived hope that WFIRST could become viable sooner. The two instruments are currently sitting in a clean room in Rochester, New York, and are costing NASA about $100,000 a year to store.

"Most of my colleagues think it is an exciting prospect," says Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division. However, officials caution that it will take some time to evaluate exactly how the telescopes would need to be repurposed and how much money NASA would save by incorporating them into the WFIRST mission.

David N. Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton University, is an unabashed booster of the idea. "This is a total game changer," Spergel told The New York Times.

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