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House Science Committee Hearing Charter: Options for Hubble Science

Status Report From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Wednesday, February 2, 2005

February 2, 2005 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
2318 Rayburn House Office Building

1. Purpose and General Background

On Wednesday, February 2, the Committee on Science will hold a hearing to examine the options for the future of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Launched in 1990, the Hubble is, according to the National Academy of Sciences, “arguably the most powerful single optical astronomical facility ever built” and “a uniquely powerful observing platform” that has made “profound contributions” to the human understanding of the universe.

The Hubble was designed at a time (before the 1986 Challenger accident) when it was assumed that the Space Shuttle would be used regularly to launch and service satellites. As a result, the Hubble was launched by the Shuttle (rather than by an expendable rocket) and was designed to require periodic servicing by astronauts to remain aloft and functioning. Four missions have serviced the Hubble (including one that was not originally planned to correct a flaw in the Hubble’s mirror). A fifth and final mission was scheduled for 2004 both to replace the batteries and gyroscopes the Hubble needs to continue to function and to add new scientific equipment. (That scientific equipment has already been built and is at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.) Without servicing, the Hubble will cease functioning as early as 2007 when the batteries run low; the exact timing is uncertain.

The demise of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 necessitated a change in the plans for the Hubble. At the very least, the loss of the Columbia meant a significant delay in Hubble servicing. (The Shuttle will not return to flight earlier than May 2005 and has a backlog of missions to construct and service the International Space Station (ISS).) But last January, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe ruled out any servicing mission, announcing that the Shuttle would no longer fly to destinations other than the ISS, citing safety concerns. That decision appeared to doom the Hubble. But the Hubble was given a new lease on life, when, responding to a public outcry and pressure from Congress, NASA proposed last year to develop a robot to perform the necessary servicing. NASA also contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to review its decision.

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