Fighting to Save Hubble Telescope From Fiery Death

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 30, 2003

All good things must come to an end.

Or do they?

Scientists are divided over the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope, with some supporters criticizing plans to bring the telescope out of orbit while it's still working.

The lifespan of the Hubble telescope, which is almost unanimously celebrated by astronomers as an unparalleled success, has already been extended twice.

The NASA plan calls for a Hubble servicing mission in 2006, possibly followed by another one a few years later, that could keep the Hubble in space far beyond even the launch of the new James Webb Space Telescope in 2011.

But after the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in February, the shuttle program has come to a grinding halt. Without servicing by the space shuttle, the Hubble is living on borrowed time.

So while the original plan called for the Hubble to be retrieved at the end of its life, and placed in a museum, NASA now plans a more unceremonious demise for the telescope: crashing it into the ocean.

That doesn't make sense to some Hubble fans, who say the telescope has grown ever more productive in its years in orbit. By killing it off, they argue, NASA is getting rid of its greatest public relations triumph.

"I don't think you can point to any greater success of NASA's, probably since putting a man on the moon, that has gotten people as excited about astronomy," said Michael Paolucci, president of, a grassroots movement. "Taking it down underestimates its importance. It's almost as if the Hubble is just being cast aside."

Revolutionizing Astronomy

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and it became an instant success. Orbiting 600 kilometers (375 miles) above Earth, Hubble can see farther into space than other telescopes, and thus also further back in time.

Using the Hubble, astronomers have found a multitude of galaxies never seen before, some dating nine-tenths of the way back to the big bang. The Hubble has mapped weather patterns on Neptune and storms on Mars, and even found evidence of a 13-billion-year-old planet, the oldest known.

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