Budget cuts to bring Hubble telescope back down to Earth

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The Independent Online

After 15 years, and even as its fans say it is doing its best work, the end is in sight for the Hubble telescope, which has provided humankind with images of far-distant galaxies and vastly improved our understanding of deep space.

After 15 years, and even as its fans say it is doing its best work, the end is in sight for the Hubble telescope, which has provided humankind with images of far-distant galaxies and vastly improved our understanding of deep space.

According to reports in the United States this weekend, the White House and Nasa have agreed to stop all plans for a space mission to prolong the life of the telescope, which is in orbit, 380 miles above Earth.

The White House blames the escalating costs of maintenance - a mission to service the telescope would cost more than $1bn (£530m). Instead, Nasa is expected to focus its activities on George Bush's space priorities - the further exploration of the Moon and Mars. Hubble, meanwhile, will be allowed to gradually run down.

However, the issue is still under negotiation and Nasa and the White House have declined to comment officially, but if the decision is confirmed when the budget is agreed next month, it will be greeted with dismay by astronomers worldwide.

Peter Bond, spokesman for the Royal Astronomical Society: "Scientists will be disappointed by this. It is still producing some tremendous images. The general opinion is that we would like Hubble to continue operating as long as possible, despite the fact that advances in ground-based astronomy mean that we can sometimes gain as much information on Earth as we can from Hubble.''

He said Hubble had produced "breakthrough discoveries'' in all areas of astronomy. "It has enabled us to see fantastic images of both the changing seasons on Mars and of fledgling galaxies and stars that are less than a billion years after the Big Bang. We can see the universe as a wonderful creation.''

The US Congress and the American Astronomical Society have also backed the idea of further repairs. Rodger Doxsey, head of the US Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble for Nasa, said last week: "We want to think twice about turning off a telescope that is in its prime.''

Servicing Hubble would extend its life to around 2013, well past the anticipated operational date of its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, in 2011. Mr Bond said, however, that the James Webb telescope would be an infra-red observatory, while Hubble photographs visible light.

Hubble requires three of its six gyroscopes to be working to keep it stable; two have already failed and others may follow if it is not repaired. However, its life is limited by its batteries; without servicing they are expected to run out sometime between 2007 and 2008. US scientists have been debating whether any service mission should be conducted by astronauts on the space shuttle or by specially designed robots. A robotic device may be built to guide it into the ocean when it finally falls to Earth.

The last planned service by astronauts, the fifth, was scrapped in the wake of the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Hubble, named after Edwin Hubble, who first put forward the theory of the expanding universe, was built in 1985 but not launched until 1990. Since then, Hubble has sent back more than 100,000 images, including pictures last year of ancient galaxies that astronomers believe emerged just 700 million years after the Big Bang, during what is known as the "dark ages of the universe".

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