NASA is scrapping plans to service the Hubble Space Telescope, either with the space shuttle or with a robot repairman, a decision likely to set up a fresh confrontation with Congress over the fate of the orbiting observatory.
Sources said that the White House, in consultation with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, had decided to eliminate the Hubble funding from the 2006 federal budget because the cost of servicing is expected to exceed $1 billion.
The sources said the administration made the decision despite its intention to ask Congress for a 4.6 percent budget increase for NASA to $17 billion. The request is expected to focus on plans to reorient NASA's priorities toward President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" to the moon and Mars.
The sources, who declined to be identified because the budget will not be officially rolled out until Feb. 7, could not confirm a report by Space.com, an online news service, that the budget would include money to develop a robotic vehicle to steer the telescope into the sea when its batteries or gyros give out, probably sometime after 2007.
NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone declined comment, saying that "we'll be prepared to discuss any possible programmatic impacts" after Feb. 7.
The decision to abandon Hubble servicing seems certain to rekindle the uproar that accompanied O'Keefe's original announcement a year ago, following the 2003 Columbia tragedy, to cancel a space shuttle trip to service Hubble.
Hubble fans ranging from career astronomers to breakfast table aficionados of the telescope's breathtaking images inundated NASA with e-mails and protests. By mid-year, NASA had decided to try to service Hubble with a robotic mission, a plan until now scheduled for preliminary review in March.
In its 2005 budget, Congress set aside $291 million for Hubble servicing, and while congressional sources said lawmakers had not been formally notified of the administration's intentions for 2006, support for the mission remains extremely strong on Capitol Hill.
Several sources in government and in Congress suggested that deleting Hubble servicing from the budget could simply be the opening salvo in a protracted struggle that could end with lawmakers adding Hubble money as budget negotiations unfold.
Other congressional sources, however, said the decision could reopen discussion of Bush's moon-Mars plan, which was greeted tepidly last year by a Congress worried that other programs and priorities -- such as Hubble -- would be downgraded or abandoned.
"At least we'll have a debate," said one source, who declined to be identified because of lack of firsthand knowledge of the decision to scrap the servicing mission. "It will certainly put in stark relief the tension between [Bush's plan] and other NASA activities."