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Hubble to become satellite roadkill? February 18, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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The long-awaited final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope may be under threat because of the large amounts of space debris from last week’s high-speed satellite collision posing a threat to the Shuttle and its astronauts, Nature reported on its news website yesterday. The collision of a US Iridium and a defunct Russian military communication satellite in a low  (800 km) Earth orbit blasted thousands of pieces of satellite shrapnel out into space, all of which is now orbiting the Earth in one of the busiest satellite lanes in a slowly expanding cloud. Each shard is moving fast enough to cause substantial, if not catastrophic, damage to any spacecraft it collides with. Cancellation of the mission would amount to a death sentence for Hubble, which is in dire need of repairs and upgrades for continued operation.

With Hubble orbiting the Earth at an alititude of around 550 km, the risk to the telescope itself is thought to be small, the Shuttle and the astronauts, who will carry out five spacewalks as part of the repair and servicing mission, could be in danger. Even before the recent collisison, scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center had estimated the risk to be high (though acceptable); the vast new quantities of debris could lead NASA to cancel the mission entirely for the safety of its astronauts. The agency is said to be monitoring the situation closely – and many scientists will be waiting with bated breath.

The final Hubble servicing mission will carry out crucial repairs and upgrades to the telescope to keep it operational until the launch of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for 2013. The mission was scheduled for October 2008, until failure of one of Hubble’s science communication units last September required a lengthy investigation and rebooting procedure, causing the mission to be delayed until May 2009.

This is another serious bump in the road for Hubble. For years now the community and the public have rallied behind this wonderful telescope and it would be heartbreaking to see the mission cancelled at this point. But the fact that this debate is even occurring raises some important questions about mankind’s use of space. Maybe that’s for another post.

Read the Nature story here, Wired Science here.

Image credit: NASA

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