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Satellite Technology Feature Article

June 14, 2012

Spy Satellites to Space Telescopes Challenges NASA

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


NASA recently received a windfall from the secretive U.S. National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) - - a pair of unfinished “spy” satellites. The two spacecrafts have fully finished optical components better than those of NASA’s elderly Hubble Space Telescope, making them ideal starting points for new science platforms. However, there’s no funding or money available to build instruments and electronics to finish even one satellite – not to mention funding to launch a completed telescope.

On June 4, NASA announced it had taken charge of the surplus NRO hardware, currently in storage at manufacturer ITT (News - Alert) Exelis Geospatal Systems’ facilities in Rochester, NY.   The NRO had the hardware built in the late 1990s through early 2000s, according to an agency spokesperson quoted in a Space News piece.

Sources quoted by Space News (News - Alert) say the surplus hardware is left over from the NRO’s failed Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program. FIA was cancelled 2005 after billions in cost-overruns and falling years behind schedule, leaving a pair of completed telescope mirror assemblies as surplus. NRO estimates the hardware is worth around $275 million.

USA Today obtained NASA’s PR question-and-answer sheet for the surplus hardware under a Freedom of Information request. The twin telescope structures are lighter than the ‘70s-80s era Hubble Telescope, using lightweight mirrors and advanced construction techniques. Each has a 2.4 meter mirror, the same size as the Hubble, but also includes an adjustable secondary mirror. The telescope and associated kit weighs in at 1700 kilograms; Hubble masses at 11,000 kilograms, but that includes all of its instruments, rails for human servicing, and solar panels.

Currently, all of the hardware is in a controlled environment storage and a long way from flying. To make a complete space observatory, instruments, solar panels, attitude control and telemetry would need to be bolted on. Ballpark estimates are between $125 million to $150 million to have a satellite ready to launch into orbit.

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge in NASA’s tight budget, the agency would need to buy a ride to orbit and fund an organization to operate it. SpaceX’s (News - Alert) Falcon Heavy might suffice to get it into Low Earth Orbit and a flight would probably cost around $150 million or so dollars. Add another $25 million for operations and ground support infrastructure to come up with around $300 million to fully outfit, fly and operate the equipment.

Space scientists would like another optical-based telescope to replace the Hubble when it is finally shut down. NASA is saying little on what it might do with the hardware, most likely because it has fought yearly battles to keep the $8 billion to $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope program going. It may be up to third-party lobbying and more Congressional tinkering to scrape up enough money to get the old NRO hardware turned into a new space telescope.




Edited by Brooke Neuman



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