Or it could be a gift that becomes a burden. NASA isn’t sure it can afford to put even one of the two new telescopes into orbit.
The telescopes were built by private contractors for the National Reconnaissance Office, one of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. The telescopes have 2.4-meter (7.9-foot) mirrors, just like the Hubble, but they have 100 times the field of view. Their structure is shorter and squatter.
They’re “space qualified,” as NASA puts it, but they’re a long way from being functioning space telescopes. They have no instruments — there are no cameras, for example. More than that, they lack a funded mission and all that entails, such as a scientific program, support staff, data analysis and office space. They will remain in storage while NASA mulls its options.
“It’s great news,” said NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz. “It’s real hardware, and it’s got really impressive capabilities.”
The announcement Monday raised the obvious question of why the intelligence agency would no longer want, or need, two Hubble-class telescopes. A spokeswoman, Loretta DeSio, provided information sparingly.
“They no longer possessed intelligence-collection uses,” she said of the telescopes.
She confirmed that the hardware represents an upgrade of Hubble’s optical technology.
“The hardware is approximately the same size as the Hubble but uses newer, much lighter mirror and structure technology,” DeSio said. She added, “Some components were removed before the transfer.”
Which components? “I can’t tell you that,” she said.
The telescopes have been declassified, though they remain sufficiently sensitive that neither the NRO or NASA would provide a photograph of them. At a presentation to scientists Monday in Washington, Alan Dressler, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science, showed an image of one of the telescopes, but it was so thoroughly blacked out — redacted for national security reasons — that the audience burst into laughter.
The surprise announcement was a reminder that NASA isn’t the only space enterprise in the government. Analysts believe that the United States spends more money on military and intelligence space operations than on civilian space efforts.
The two NRO telescopes may be versions of the KH-11 Kennan satellites that the agency has been putting into orbit since 1976, according to a space analyst familiar with both civilian and military hardware. The analyst said that in recent years, the NRO has decided to switch to surveillance satellites that have a broader field of view than the older models. Instead of essentially looking down through a straw at the Earth’s surface, the new technology looks down through a garden hose, the analyst said.