Managing Hubble Science

In late January, just one day past the annual deadline forsubmitting proposals to use the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the venerableobservatory's key instruments, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, went dark.About 500 of the more than 700 proposals received by the Jan. 26 deadline weresuddenly obsolete.

Astronomers were told they had two weeks to submit revisedproposals. By the time the new deadline came and went, the Space TelescopeScience Institute (STSI) here was surprised to discover that the total numberof proposals had actually gone up.

To Matt Mountain, the institute's director, the sciencecommunity's strong response was a testament to Hubble's enduring popularityamong hardcore astronomers. "To our amazement, we got over 800 proposals,"Mountain said in a recent interview. "So the interest in using Hubble is stillextraordinarily high."

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A panel of 100 astronomers not affiliated with the SpaceTelescope Science Institute are due to gather March 19-23 at a hotel near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport to conduct peer reviews of the 821 proposals and decidewhich ones deserve Hubble observation time and the funding that goes with it."Astronomical jury duty," is how one longtime STSI senior scientist put it.Ultimately, the panel's rank-ordered recommendations go to Mountain, who has finalsay. By the time selections are announced in late spring, only about one inseven of those proposals will have made the cut.

Deciding who gets to use Hubble is only one of the SpaceTelescope Science Institute's many responsibilities. The institute also is incharge of planning down to the second the 3,000 hours each year Hubble isavailable for scientific observations. Building Hubble's schedule is afull-time job for 15 people, according to Ken Sembach, head of STSI's HubbleMission Office.

And while STSI is no longer in charge of Hubble flightoperations -- that role reverted back to NASA's nearby Goddard Space FlightCenter a few years ago -- the institute manages the telescope's continuallygrowing data archive, which currently serves 700,000 registered astronomersworldwide.

STSI was established in 1981 and has been operating from itspresent location on the campus of Johns Hopkins University since 1983. Thededicated science center is managed by the nonprofit Association ofUniversities for Astronomy Research under contract to NASA. The institute hasan annual budget of $57 million, nearly every dollar of which comes from NASA.That figure does not include the $27 million in NASA grant money that passesthrough STSI on its way to research astronomers.

If it can be said that STSI is the center of the Hubbleuniverse, the same certainly goes for Hubble's successor, the James Webb SpaceTelescope. Slated for launch in 2013 aboard a European Space Agency-provided Ariane5 rocket, the $4.5 billion Webb telescope is expected to do for infraredastronomy what Hubble has done for visible light and ultraviolet astronomy. Notonly will STSI manage Webb's science operations much as it does for Hubble, theinstitute will be responsible for Webb's flight operations, commanding thedistant observatory from an on-site flight control center currently being usedas a software and instrument test bed.

Two years ago, when NASA announced that it was canceling along-planned space shuttle mission to service Hubble, STSI was wondering how itwas going to traverse an anticipated multiyear gap between Hubble going darkand the start of Webb operations without losing hard-to-replace specialists toretirement and other endeavors.

Today, with NASA committed to a September 2008 Hubbleservicing mission, STSI has the opposite problem -- supporting Hubble andgetting ready for Webb without adding new staff. "Rather than letting staff go,which was the original picture, we will be holding [to] our current stafflevels," Mountain said. "In fact, there will be a little more stretching thanusual."

Prior to Mountain's arrival in 2005, STSI had eliminatedabout 50 positions in response to the Hubble servicing mission cancellation.STSI currently employs 380 people and plans to stay at that level for the timebeing in light of NASA's current budget uncertainty, Mountain said. To makesure the institute is adequately staffed during the servicing mission, STSI istalking to Johns Hopkins about borrowing perhaps six people.

Late 2008 is shaping up to be a very busy time for STSIpersonnel involved in Webb as well. That is when the telescope's instrumentsare due to enter a prolonged integration and testing phase -- a necessaryundertaking, STSI officials said, because Webb will be located 1 millionkilometers from Earth -- too far for the kind of astronaut servicing missionsthe shuttle was able to do for the Hubble Space Telescope. "There will beseveral years of very intensive integration and testing [including] end-to-endtests that we've got to be ready to support as though [the telescope] were outin orbit," Mountain said.

There is no guarantee that Hubble and Webb operations willoverlap, but Mario Livio, a senior astronomer at STSI, said it is a distinctpossibility if Webb launches in 2013 as currently scheduled and Hubble emergesfrom the servicing mission ready to keep churning out productive scienceanother five years as expected. While an overlap would create some managerialchallenges for the institute, STSI officials are not particularly worried. "Itwould be a nice challenge to have," Mountain said.

Beyond managing Hubble and preparing to operate Webb, STSIis also gearing up to archive and distribute data from NASA's planet-hunting Keplertelescope due to launch in 2008. Additionally, the institute manages the U.S.National Virtual Observatory, a NASA-National Science Foundation project aimedat making it easier for scientists to find, retrieve and analyze astronomy dataobtained from ground- and space-based telescopes.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.