By Dan Vergano
(USA TODAY) - NASA announced some early Christmas presents on Monday - two space telescopes, gifts from the U.S. space intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office.
The two 2.4 meter space telescopes and satellite casings may enable NASA to complete a number of delayed space astronomy missions, notably the WFIRST mission beset by budget troubles at the space agency. The space telescope parts and optics now reside on the ground in storage in Rochester, N.Y.
"This is 'space-qualified' hardware," says NASA's Paul Hertz. "Early looks indicate that this hardware could enable many of the highest priority goals," he says, in astronomy, ones outlined in the 2010 "New Worlds, New Horizons" report released by an NRC panel in consultation with the astrophysics community.
The satellite telescopes, lighter and of more recent vintage than the 1980's optics of the Hubble telescope, include a moving secondary mirror that would enable the spacecraft to observe 100 times the area of the Hubble space telescope's fixed mirrors, according to astronomer Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, who presented an analysis of the scopes to the NRC panel.
Public announcement of the gift was made at a National Research Council astronomy meeting by a Hertz, first reported by the Washington Post.
" They basically look as good as Hubble, without the aberration," says Space Telescope Science Institute chief Matt Mountain, referring to the flaw in the Hubble space telescope's mirror that required heroic efforts to fix after its 1990 launch. Mountain was part of a three-scientist outside team asked to look over the space telescope hardware by NASA. "A pretty cool set of optics," was his verdict.
Although the spy agency has declassified the two-lightweight satellite structures and optical systems, two mirrors and their controls, much of the information about them remains hush-hush, as the picture of one of the birds released at the NRC meeting by Dressler shows.
In business since 1960, but only acknowledged by the government in the early 1990's , the National Reconnaissance Office has an estimated $15 billion budget, rivaling NASA.
Comparisons between the NRO's KH-11, or Keyhole, overhead spy satellites and the Hubble space telescope have been standard fare in space policy circles for decades, but NASA's Michael Moore said the donated space hardware was of more recent vintage than Hubble's 1980's optics, more light-weight and "better." (In recent years, the spy agency has made moves to declassify Cold War era satellites under its control, but nothing in the league of a KH-11 satellite.)
"This hardware is no longer needed for performance of our responsibilities," said the NRO's Lorretta Desio, who would not comment on the original intended use of the two telescopes. "We think this is good news for NASA," she says. The NRO alerted NASA to the existence of the telescope parts in August, according to Moore, and the civilian space agency took formal control of the equipment only recently.
"Hopefully this is a good sign for how well things are going if they don't need them," says spy agency expert Jeffrey Richelson, who is working on a history of the NRO. "There are two possibilities -- they can't build them or they don't need them. It does imply some large measure of confidence in their latest observation systems to release these (telescopes)."
NASA has had trouble on the funding front with its $1.6 billion Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, a dark energy and alien planet-finding probe that would boast a 1.5 meter telescope. Launching one of the NRO telescopes, suitably fitted with attitude control, propulsion and thermal systems, may move a 2022 mission along the lines of WFIRST into the $1 billion range, Dressler suggested at the NRC meeting:
"...the potential exists to have greater capability for the WFIRST science, enable additional scientific opportunities, match or reduce cost, and improve schedule, and that this possibility should be pursued as vigorously as possible by the astronomical community," concludes his presentation.
Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, one of the other outside experts asked to evaluate the NRO telescopes by NASA, has proposed that a re-purposed spy telescope be dubbed the "NEW " mission, for N(ew World, New Horizons) Enabling Wide-field telescope
Fitting one of the gift telescopes with a "coronograph", a telescope designed to screen out star glare, may enable it to look at "super-earth" planets spotted by NASA's Kepler space telescope, which has found hundreds of alien planet candidates circling nearby stars in the last three years, Mountain notes.
As well, the NRO telescopes would complement NASA's $8.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope, a 6.4 meter jumbo space telescope aimed for a 2018 launch, Hertz suggested, essentially serving as nimble "spotter" scopes for the more powerful JWST.
If "money were no object," Hertz says, (not likely in the present era of budget deficit politics), NASA could launch a suitably fitted-out version of the space telescopes around the end of the decade. Development of optics for space telescopes has traditionally been one of the most risky and costly facets of astronomy missions, Moore noted. "Here, we don't have that issue," he said.
Media representatives for the House and Senate science committees, which have NASA oversight, declined to comment on the gift telescopes.