Shuttle extension could again lengthen Hubble life

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Hubble proponents are mulling potential future servicing options for the recently reinvigorated 19-yr-old space telescope in light of an option offered by the Obama administration's Review of Human Space Flight Plans committee final report, expected to be finalised by the end of September.

As part of Option 4, one of five "families" of options revealed in a summary report of the group's findings in the 90-day study, the committee suggests continuing Shuttle flights to low Earth orbit to 2015, four years more than current plans, to eliminate a gap in the USA's ability to carry astronauts to the International Space Station until a next-generation vehicle can be commissioned.

For Hubble, the extension opens the possibility of a sixth servicing mission that could boost the observatory's life by another five years or more from the 2014 life extension made possible by SM4, the fifth servicing mission that took place in May. Along with new gyros and batteries, astronauts installed the Wide Field Camera 3 during the 13-day mission, giving the telescope a 35X improvement in "discovery efficiency" in near ultraviolet and blue light, according to NASA.

Advocates within the science community say the "dramatically more powerful observatory" has already allowed them to see some of the oldest objects in the Universe to date. "There is no reason to believe that the technologies today would not continue to improve, addressing some of the hottest topics in astronomy in ways that are far superior to what Hubble can do today and at fraction of the cost of the dedicated missions being considered," says one expert.

First images from WFC3, the primary goal of SM4, were revealed by NASA in early September. Overall, the telescope has recorded more than 900,000 images on a total of 11 instruments that have been part of the mission since it was launched in 1990.