By Brian Berger
Space News Staff Writer
In late January, just one day past the annual deadline for submitting proposals to use the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the venerable observatory's key instruments, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, went dark. About 500 of the more than 700 proposals received by the Jan. 26 deadline were suddenly obsolete.
Astronomers were told they had two weeks to submit revised proposals. By the time the new deadline came and went, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) here was surprised to discover that the total number of proposals had actually gone up.
To Matt Mountain, the institute's director, the science community's strong response was a testament to Hubble's enduring popularity among hardcore astronomers. “To our amazement, we got over 800 proposals,” Mountain said in a recent interview. “So the interest in using Hubble is still extraordinarily high.”
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A panel of 100 astronomers not affiliated with the Space Telescope Science Institute are due to gather March 19-23 at a hotel near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport to conduct peer reviews of the 821 proposals and decide which ones deserve Hubble observation time and the funding that goes with it. “Astronomical jury duty,” is how one longtime STSI senior scientist put it. Ultimately, the panel's rank-ordered recommendations go to Mountain, who has final say. By the time selections are announced in late spring, only about one in seven of those proposals will have made the cut.
Deciding who gets to use Hubble is only one of the Space Telescope Science Institute's many responsibilities. The institute also is in charge of planning down to the second the 3,000 hours each year Hubble is available for scientific observations. Building Hubble's schedule is a full-time job for 15 people, according to Ken Sembach, head of STSI's Hubble Mission Office.
And while STSI is no longer in charge of Hubble flight operations that role reverted back to NASA's nearby Goddard Space Flight Center a few years ago the institute manages the telescope's continually growing data archive, which currently serves 700,000 registered astronomers worldwide.
STSI was established in 1981 and has been operating from its present location on the campus of Johns Hopkins University since 1983. The dedicated science center is managed by the nonprofit Association of Universities for Astronomy Research under contract to NASA. The institute has an annual budget of $57 million, nearly every dollar of which comes from NASA. That figure does not include the $27 million in NASA grant money that passes through STSI on its way to research astronomers.
If it can be said that STSI is the center of the Hubble universe, the same certainly goes for Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. Slated for launch in 2013 aboard a European Space Agency-provided Ariane 5 rocket, the $4.5 billion Webb telescope is expected to do for infrared astronomy what Hubble has done for visible light and ultraviolet astronomy. Not only will STSI manage Webb's science operations much as it does for Hubble, the institute will be responsible for Webb's flight operations, commanding the distant observatory from an on-site flight control center currently being used as a software and instrument test bed.
Two years ago, when NASA announced that it was canceling a long-planned space shuttle mission to service Hubble, STSI was wondering how it was going to traverse an anticipated multiyear gap between Hubble going dark and the start of Webb operations without losing hard-to-replace specialists to retirement and other endeavors.
Today, with NASA committed to a September 2008 Hubble servicing mission, STSI has the opposite problem supporting Hubble and getting ready for Webb without adding new staff.
“Rather than letting staff go, which was the original picture, we will be holding [to] our current staff levels,” Mountain said. “In fact, there will be a little more stretching than usual.”
Prior to Mountain's arrival in 2005, STSI had eliminated about 50 positions in response to the Hubble servicing mission cancellation. STSI currently employs 380 people and plans to stay at that level for the time being in light of NASA's current budget uncertainty, Mountain said. To make sure the institute is adequately staffed during the servicing mission, STSI is talking to Johns Hopkins about borrowing perhaps six people.
Late 2008 is shaping up to be a very busy time for STSI personnel involved in Webb as well. That is when the telescope's instruments are due to enter a prolonged integration and testing phase a necessary undertaking, STSI officials said, because Webb will be located 1 million kilometers from Earth too far for the kind of astronaut servicing missions the shuttle was able to do for the Hubble Space Telescope. “There will be several years of very intensive integration and testing [including] end-to-end tests that we've got to be ready to support as though [the telescope] were out in orbit,” Mountain said.
There is no guarantee that Hubble and Webb operations will overlap, but Mario Livio, a senior astronomer at STSI, said it is a distinct possibility if Webb launches in 2013 as currently scheduled and Hubble emerges from the servicing mission ready to keep churning out productive science another five years as expected. While an overlap would create some managerial challenges for the institute, STSI officials are not particularly worried. “It would be a nice challenge to have,” Mountain said.
Beyond managing Hubble and preparing to operate Webb, STSI is also gearing up to archive and distribute data from NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope due to launch in 2008. Additionally, the institute manages the U.S. National Virtual Observatory, a NASA-National Science Foundation project aimed at making it easier for scientists to find, retrieve and analyze astronomy data obtained from ground- and space-based telescopes.
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