Wednesday, June 06, 2012

NASA is Gifted Two 'Spy Satellite-Telescopes' By The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)

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Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

Spy agency's gift could save NASA big bucks on super-Hubble mission

By Alan Boyle

     A gift of space telescope hardware from America's spy agency could knock $250 million off the billion-dollar-plus cost of a mission to study dark energy and extrasolar planets, NASA says. But scientists and space agency officials say the super-Hubble telescope won't replace the multibillion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope.

After more than a year of deliberation, NASA today revealed that it's taken possession of two optical mirror assemblies that had been built for the National Reconnaissance Office but were rendered surplus when the NRO decided they were unneeded. Although the spy agency has declined to say what the hardware would have been used for, it almost certainly was designed for next-generation spy satellites.

The assemblies fit inside a barrel that's about half the length of the Hubble Space Telescope, sparking the nickname "Stubby Hubble." The size of each primary mirror is the same as Hubble's: 94 inches or 2.4 meters in diameter. But the focal length is shorter, which would give the telescopes "about 100 times bigger area that you can image well," said Alan Dressler, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

That would make the mirrors perfectly suited for a wide-field telescope that could survey the cosmos to gauge the effect of dark energy, a mysterious factor that is speeding up the acceleration of the universe, Dressler and NASA officials told journalists today. Such a telescope could also detect Earthlike planets beyond the solar system by looking for an effect known as microlensing, and study supernovae and other astronomical phenomena as well. . . .

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