The World's Best Eye on the Cosmos Goes Dark in Maryland

Next week President Obama is slated to deliver his first speech on the administration's NASA policy, which calls for transferring routine space travel to private companies. The proposal has sparked fears of government layoffs and questions about the wisdom of ceding cosmic flight to Russia, China, and corporate America. But another likely consequence has been overlooked: the irrevocable end of the Hubble Space Telescope, hailed as the greatest eye on the cosmos since Galileo.

None of Hubble's work—including the first images of planets orbiting another sun—would have been possible without the shuttle, which launched the device in 1990 and ferried astronauts up on five different occasions for crucial repairs. Last year's maintenance trip left the orbiting camera more powerful than ever. But no more U.S. spacecraft, at least for the foreseeable future, means no more service trips—and a permanent sleep for the iconic machine the next time it breaks down, or when its batteries die around 2015. With the end in sight, astronomers at Maryland's Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages Hubble, are organizing their largest research project ever—part of a final push for material on the origins and evolution of the universe. "My heavens," says University of California, Santa Cruz, astronomer—and lead researcher—Sandra Faber, "it's the biggest event of my career."

For her and other astronomers, it may also be a temporary swan song for super-telescopes. Hubble was headed for retirement in any case: the technology is getting old, and with a limited budget, astronomers have elected to focus on a new camera that can pick up invisible ultraviolet light. But without federally run space travel, this device and any future Hubble II will need to work perfectly the first time (hardly a sure thing), be cheap enough to treat like a disposable camera (also a stretch), or be reachable using a commercial service. Because companies can make easier money selling tickets to the International Space Station, however, privately tended telescopes are unlikely. "That's why we have a government," says Faber, "to do things like this."

The World's Best Eye on the Cosmos Goes Dark in Maryland | U.S.