The Danger To The Hubble Telescope, Itself

This entry was posted by Thursday, 14 May, 2009
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Based on an image by Somadjinn and taken from morguefile.com

HUBBLE: BALANCING THE RISK.
The Hubble Space Telescope is located in a high orbit where there’s lots of “space junk”. This makes me wonder how long it’ll last up there AFTER lives are risked and money is spent.
There are worries enough about the crew of the Atlantis which is servicing the Ol‘ Gal. Each Shuttle flight – each ONE – has a little less than a 1% chance of destruction. It’s a horrible thought in terms of the crew and it’s also a gamble with “The Peoples Money”. 
You’re going to say (aren’t you?) that the odds for Christopher Columbus were no better.  And it didn’t put off Queen Isabella. But maybe she didn’t have to explain herself to the taxpayers.
Anyway, Atlantis is now off fixing up the broken – down Hubble. Supposedly, it’s harder than it looks to do mechanical repair work while weaving around on a wiggily mechanical boom, trying to focus on the job instead of the consequences of vomiting into your helmet. 
Past Hubble repair missions were designed around modular packages which were intended to be handled by humans trapped in expando suits where zero gravity movements are unnatural and awkward. But, for this expedition, the job requires that they swap out “board level” components, keep track of each screw that’s removed, and, at the end of the job, put them back into the same holes. And no scrounging in the parts bin for spares. If it works, this may be one of the crowning achievements of the “manned” (means human) space program.
JUNK
Space debris (or “space junk”), always a worry, has gotten even worse this year. NASA’s chief scientist said that it isn’t anything to lose sleep over because the chances of a “catastrophic” collision for the Atlantis are “less than 1 in 221” (so about .5%) . The logic? Shuttle flights are already so full of risk, what’s a little more? Would YOU lose sleep if your flight to Cincinnati had a probability of blowing up of 1 in 221? I know I wouldn’t. 
And I know that’s a not-quite-fair low blow. 
Anyway, there IS a point to all this. If the odds against the shuttle failing to survive a few days up there are that bad, what are the risks to the Hubble, itself,  of dodging a debris bullet for five full years? After all,  if the risk is bad enough, this noble mission is pretty silly.
Science Ain’t That Bad is trying (at least) to be a little more of a primary news source. But,  in researching this, I didn’t bother NASA because there’s already public info about the Hubble and its debris dance. An article from 2002 (a little old and there’s more debris now but the principles are the same) claims that the Hubble gets popped often but the odds of destruction are small. Obviously, a hole in the skin WOULD be more consequential if the telescope needed oxygen as much as an astronaut does. But the Hubble, being a telescope, doesn’t mind a hole in its skin  as long as the impact doesn’t damage a critical instrument or part of the optics (or contain enough kinetic energy that the impact blows everything to bits). In time, the odds will catch up to each instrument package. And, this time, as each one fails, death will be permanent.  
The final end of the Hubble may be largely in the hands of space junk.
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One Response to “The Danger To The Hubble Telescope, Itself”

  1. Anonymous

    Sadly, space junk has been a known problem for decades, yet there is no major move to reduce new additions. Wait until we start losing our satellite TV, radio, pagers, and spy satellites to space junk; then (when it’s too late), it’ll get the attention it deserves. The worst thing is that the more stuff we put in orbit, the higher the likelihood of collisions. These collisions then spawn lots more space junk. So the problem grows exponentially.

    Sean


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