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Can the Hubble Telescope Be Saved?

NASA's decision to stop servicing the Hubble Space Telescope has agitated astronomers and the general public

3 min read

In the latest repercussion from the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas last year, a huge question mark now hangs over the future of one of astronomy's most valuable assets, the Hubble Space Telescope. On 16 January, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe announced the cancellation of a long-planned servicing mission to the orbiting telescope by a shuttle. O'Keefe, who took personal responsibility for the decision, says it was based on the difficulty of servicing the telescope within the shuttle safety limits established by the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, released last August [see "How to Fix the NASA Disaster," IEEE Spectrum, October 2003, pp. 10-12].

The report demanded that any shuttle not going to and from the safe haven of the International Space Station (ISS) be fully capable, on its own, of inspecting and repairing any damage to its thermal protection system. As the only non-ISS mission on the books, the Hubble mission would require the development of a slew of safety-related technologies. And because the shuttle fleet will be decommissioned after the construction of the ISS is completed, these technologies would likely never be used again.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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