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NASA Narrows Possible Uses for Former Spy Telescopes

New role. NASA is exploring using a reconfigured spy telescope to search for extrasolar planets, such as the one pictured in this artist's conception.


NASA has decided that the best use of two space telescopes gifted to it by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)—an intelligence gathering agency—would be to utilize them in a mission to study dark energy and extrasolar planets. Provided the agency can find the money to fund that mission: the proposed Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

NASA began mulling what to do with the two 2.4-meter telescopes nearly 2 years ago, after NRO handed the instruments over to the space agency. An initial study by a group of astrophysicists determined that one of the telescopes could be used as a centerpiece of the $1.6 billion WFIRST project, which received top billing among space projects recommended for funding in the most recent U.S. astronomy decadal survey.

Earlier this year, however, NASA hosted a meeting where astronomers and planetary scientists were invited to present other ideas for using the telescopes. There was no dearth of concepts. One idea was to put one of the telescopes in orbit around Mars. Another was to dedicate the instrument to gamma ray astronomy.

After studying all these options, NASA has decided that the only one it wishes to pursue at this time is using the telescope for WFIRST, Paul Hertz, the head of NASA's astrophysics division, announced on Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Indianapolis. However, whether WFIRST will happen at all or not remains an open question, he said—and it won't get decided until at least 2016.