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Only NASA Astrophysics Remains in Running for Donated NRO Telescope — For Now

NASA science chief John Grunsfeld. Credit: NASA photo by Carla Coffi

SILVER SPRING, Md. — One of the two donated spy telescopes NASA got from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) last year might still be used for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, but neither will be used any time soon for any other kind of NASA science, a senior agency official said here June 4.

The decision followed a May 30 briefing at which NASA Science Mission Directorate officials made the case to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that using one of the two gift telescopes would cost no more than designing the WFIRST mission around a smaller observatory built from scratch, NASA science chief John Grunsfeld told SpaceNews here. 

The concept presented to Bolden — from a report published May 24 by the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)-Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets science definition team — estimates a WFIRST built around the NRO hardware would cost “between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion,” Grunsfeld said. He spoke with SpaceNews during the 2013 Space Weather Enterprise Forum at the headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

NASA received the two telescopes from the NRO in June 2012 and immediately began studying whether the observatories, each of which has a primary mirror 2.4 meters in diameter, could be used as the foundation for WFIRST. The latest astrophysics decadal survey, published in 2010, said WFIRST’s science objectives were second only to those of the James Webb Space Telescope, the flagship astrophysics observatory launching in 2018, and which NASA now estimates will cost $8.8 billion to design, build, and operate in space for five years.

NASA also started soliciting ideas for other ways to use the NRO telescopes as part of what the agency called a Study on Applications of Large Space Optics. A November request for information returned numerous ideas from the science community, which NASA later distilled into seven narrower categories that included using the donated spyware as a Mars-orbiting observatory, an ultraviolet astronomy telescope and an optical communications node.

After the May 30 meeting, NASA passed on all of those ideas, Grunsfeld told SpaceNews June 4. 

Grunsfeld said that “when you look at the list [of ideas submitted], virtually none of them were really priorities” in line with the latest recommendations the National Academy of Sciences made in various decadal survey reports. 

NASA might revisit using the gift telescopes for a nonastrophysics mission “at some point in the future, depending on the budget,” Grunsfeld said. 

The only thing the telescopes may not be used for is Earth observation, which the NRO forbade as one of its conditions for turning the observatories over to NASA. 

Meanwhile, the two telescopes are still being stored at NASA’s expense at ITT Exelis’ spacecraft optics facility in Rochester, N.Y. When NASA took ownership of the telescopes, the agency said its annual storage bill would be between $75,000 and $100,000.

Grunsfeld said June 3 that NASA’s storage costs “to maintain a telescope in flight condition” would be the same whether it stored one telescope at Rochester or two. 

 

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