NASA gets two military spy telescopes for astronomy

The secretive government agency that flies spy satellites has made a stunning gift to NASA: two exquisite telescopes as big and powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope. They’ve never left the ground and are in storage in Rochester, N.Y.

It’s an unusual technology transfer from the military-intelligence space program to the better-known civilian space agency. It could be a boost for NASA’s troubled science program, which is groaning under the budgetary weight of the James Webb Space Telescope, still at least six years from launch.

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.

“This is going to be top-quality hardware,” said the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. “They’re not state-of-the-art spy satellites, but they are probably still state-of-the-art optics.”

DeSio, the NRO spokeswoman, said the telescopes were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Spotting a dime from space

These are formidable eyes in the sky, apparently. NASA official Michael Moore said that if the Hubble Space Telescope were pointed at the surface of the Earth instead of at outer space, “you could see a dime sitting on top of the Washington Monument.”

The spy telescopes have a feature that civilian space telescopes lack: a maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more-focused images, said David Spergel, a Princeton University astrophysicist and a co-chair of the National Academies of Science committee on astronomy and astrophysics.

The new telescopes are “actually better than the Hubble. They’re the same size, but the optical design is such that you can put a broader set of instruments on the back,” he said.

Spergel is among the scientists who in 2010 produced the “decadal survey,” which listed the top priorities in astronomy. At the top of the list was a new space telescope that could be used to look for extrasolar planets and to study “dark energy,” the mysterious cosmic force that seems to be causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

NASA has a plan for such a telescope, called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). But the program has effectively been put on hold because of the dismal state of the space agency’s science budget.

The Webb has gobbled up money that might have gone to other projects. It’s a jumbo telescope designed to orbit 1 million miles from Earth, where it would observe the mid-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. With that capability, it could gather light from the farthest reaches of the universe. But it’s not scheduled to launch until 2018, more than four years past the original launch target, and its projected cost is nearing $9 billion.

WFIRST was envisioned as a much less expensive telescope with a relatively modest light-collecting mirror, just 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). One of the new NRO telescopes, with a bigger mirror, would give WFIRST an upgrade in capability.

But everything comes down to money.

No money for a mission

“NASA does not have in its current budget the funding necessary to develop a space telescope mission using these new telescopes,” Hertz, the astrophysics director, said in a conference call.

He said that, using plausible budgets, 2024 would be the earliest date to launch one of the two telescopes unless the agency received additional funding from Congress. “Any dates earlier, like 2019 or 2020, is if money is no object,” Hertz said.

And that is the projection for just one of the telescopes. The other seems destined to remain firmly on the ground for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t at this point in time anticipate ever being rich enough to use both of them, but it sure would be fun, wouldn’t it?” Hertz said.

The value of a space telescope sitting in storage is hard to estimate, but NASA officials said that having a finished piece of telescope hardware would shave about $250 million off a future mission. It would also shorten the timeline on a project by several years.

“The thing that takes the longest to build is the telescope,” Spergel said.

NASA’s windfall takes the pain out of the planned demise of the Hubble. The storied telescope, launched in 1990 and still operating, will lose functionality in coming years. NASA, lacking a space shuttle, has neither the means nor the money to repair the Hubble again. At some point, it will return to the atmosphere in a controlled de-orbit, crash into the Pacific and sink to the bottom of the ocean.

“Instead of losing a terrific telescope, you now have two telescopes even better to replace it with,” Spergel said.

Asked whether anyone at NASA was popping champagne, the agency’s head of science, John Grunsfeld, answered, “We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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