As some of you are aware, about a decade ago, the US military was in the middle of building two very powerful spy satellites. These telescopes were being constructed to conduct surveillance missions for the National Reconnaissance Office under a multibillion-dollar program. This particular project was eventually canceled in 2005 due to cost overruns and delays. What was almost a waste of the taxpayer’s money turned into a blessing in disguise, as NASA managed to get the telescopes from the NRO back in 2012.
Essentially, two Hubble-sized telescopes just fell into NASA’s lap. The telescopes come with a chassis and a 2.4 meter main mirror (about 0.1 meters smaller than Hubble’s); this duo is also designed with a much wider field of view than Hubble. The NRO telescopes are blank slates; the only thing NASA needs to do is put in the desired imaging equipment and then put the telescopes in orbit.
George Fletcher from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, explained, "There was a lot of excitement in the scientific community when these were transferred to NASA, because they are world-class, Hubble-class telescopes, optics." I guess that’s the nice thing about letting the military build telescope chassis – you get a very high quality skeleton. Now that NASA has these treasures, they need to figure out what to do with them.
This is where the Study on Applications of Large Space Optics (SALSO) comes in. At the moment, SALSO has received more than 60 serious proposals of how to proceed with the newly inherited telescopes. These proposals basically fall into seven different categories.
- Mars-orbiting telescope
- Exoplanet hunter
- General-purpose faint object explorer
- Hubble 2.0 – using Hubble-like equipment to see visible and ultraviolet light
- Optical communications node in space – which would help scientists send data to and receive data from missions in deep-space.
- Geospace dynamic observatory, which basically studies space weather as well as the Sun-Earth relationship
- Research in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which would require attaching the telescope to the International Space Station
- Of the possibilities considered, SALSO is not investigating the possibility of incorporating one of these telescopes into the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope project – a proposed $1.5-billion USD project whose primary mission would be to hunt for exoplanets and analyze dark energy. Why didn’t SALSO look into this? Simply because a research team with the Astrophysics Focus Telescope Assets (AFTA) is currently looking into it.
AFTA’s report was released on May, 23 2013. This allows SALSO to really crack down on the project proposals so we can make the most of these two valuable assets.
Even after NASA figures out the best way to use the NRO telescopes, they are still years away from being able to do anything with them. As I mentioned before, the telescopes are blank slates. The do not have any imaging instruments whatsoever and, even after NASA assigns a task for the telescopes, the imaging equipment will need to be developed, built, tested, and installed. In addition, funding for operating the telescope in murky at best, even if NASA gets the telescopes in orbit, there is no guarantee they will have the money to operate it.
Having two Hubble-like telescope chassis is certainly very exciting and a major cost relief on NASA (assuming they wanted two more Hubble’s, but, then again, who wouldn’t?). But, we still have years to go before these telescopes can be made operational.