NASA Gets a Hand-Me-Down from Spy Agency: Two Space Telescopes

By Veronique Greenwood | June 5, 2012 10:58 am

The Hubble Space Telescope. The new scopes are shorter,
designed for peering down.

NASA announced some exciting news yesterday: apparently, the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that looks after the US’s spy satellites, had a couple of Hubble-scale space telescopes lying around.

In a warehouse in upstate New York.

In bits and pieces, lacking the requisite solar panels and cameras to make them fully functional, but basically complete, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Why did the NRO have two unused space telescopes, when NASA is barely able to scrape two pennies together? Neither side will answer that question, citing classified information. Go ahead, use your imagination.

But an enterprising NRO official gave NASA a ring, and a little bureaucratic paper-pushing later, hey presto! NASA has two more space telescopes it had a few months ago. Right now, Chandra, Spitzer, and Hubble are in orbit, and the James Webb Space Telescope is supposed to launch in 2018, though its budget woes have been of epic proportions. These new telescopes are essentially satellites with mirrors the same width as Hubble’s but a shorter focal length, so they can see a wider stretch of space, and they are likely to be repurposed as part of a mission to explore dark energy, as Julianne Dalcanton notes over at Cosmic Variance.

It’s a little wince-inducing, though, to realize that NASA will be lucky if they can scrimp and save enough to get even one of these scopes up into orbit. “We don’t anticipate ever being rich enough to use both of them, but it sure would be fun to think about,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director, in a conference call on Monday (via Talking Points Memo’s IdeaLab).

Fun is one word for it; sad is another. But those reservations aside, we wish NASA best of luck and congratulations on this windfall—it’s always exciting to see more resources being funneled towards observing space.

Image courtesy of NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Sean

    I’m thrilled to see the telescopes be given to NASA, but I’m also extremely sad that the NRO has better equipment and funds in the first place. I can only imagine what NASA could do with the backing that the NRO gets.

  • JimmyDean BreakfastSausage

    Hey Nasa.

    How about contacting other countries and seeing if they would like to pitch in some money and get time on the scopes? Call Canada. Call France, UK, Australia. Call everyone.

    Get them up in the air. I’m pretty sure there are Astronomers out there who would love to have time on a space telescope.

    For that matter, try asking if individuals all over the world would like to pitch in. I don’t know how much you’ll get, but you’ll get some money. Try getting it worked into an episode of “The Big Bang Theory”. Put it on blogs. I’m sure you get the idea.

    Think outside the space telescope sized box.

  • bruce

    One word… Kickstarter!

  • Iain

    Raffle and 50/50 draws. You’ll be surprised at the take.

  • floodmouse

    Sometimes the best way to raise money is $5 from everybody. But do these telescopes have any commercial applications? Would any corporations be motivated to buy time on a telescope? Can’t they be pointed down, as well as up? Corporations have bigger pockets than the rest of us.

  • cmarrou


    You bet the scopes can be pointed down – that’s why NRO paid to have them built. It’s not called the Space Reconnaissance Agency…

  • Cathy

    Can they fit in the SpaceX Dragon? And yes, I’d totally chip in twenty bucks via a Kickstarter for this.

  • Grumiester

    Since Nasa is in such a bind, as it usually is, due to mismanagement and lack of vision. I suggest that they give Elon Musk a ring and see if they could not work out some kind of arrangement with SpaceX.
    I would also think that ESA might have an Ariane rocket they could use. Just trying to think out of the box.

  • floodmouse

    If this were my project, I would try to sell exclusive broadcast rights to one of the major media companies. They could turn it into a circus, with all kinds of special feature television broadcasts and satellite pictures posted online.

  • Veronique Greenwood

    If you’d like to get an experiment in orbit for a reasonable amount of money, you should submit an idea to our contest!

    Here it is in Phil Plait’s words:

    “Discover Magazine is contributing to a project to help the public create and run an experiment that will actually get launched into space aboard a small cubesat satellite!
    This is a real thing. A small group of aerospace experts is running a KickStarter campaign to fund this satellite. By contributing to the KickStarter you can do anything from simply supporting them to actually being able to build and run your own experiment on the satellite once it’s up.

    “Discover Magazine’s involvement with this has been to issue the Discover Space Challenge: you can submit your own idea for an experiment, game, or application to run on the ArduSat. The most innovative one will win free Team Development Kit worth $1500, and it will fly with the ArduSat into space! Details are on the KickStarter page.”


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