A robotic house call - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

A robotic house call

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Posted: Monday, May 31, 2004 9:33 pm | Updated: 4:32 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

There was great dismay in the astronomy community and among space buffs generally when NASA announced in January that the agency would be forced to let the Hubble space telescope die of old age, probably around 2007.

The reason: NASA, still grieving from the Columbia accident, didn't feel that it could fly a fourth shuttle mission to the telescope with sufficient guarantees of safety. If something happened to the shuttle at the international space station, the astronauts could be rescued; at the Hubble, they could not.

Since its launch in 1990, the telescope has made pioneering discoveries in outer space and produced spectacular images from the far reaches of the universe, and the predictable outcry made NASA reconsider.

The National Academy of Sciences is considering ways, including a possible shuttle mission, to service the telescope and greatly extend its life span. The telescope needs new batteries and gyros, and, if the astronomers have their way, some new instrument and camera packages. It is delicate work.

But now another possible way of saving the Hubble has surfaced: sending robots to do it. While the idea has a sci-fi sound to it, NASA is looking at more than two dozen proposals to send robots into space to do the repair work.

Some of the robots, like the Johnson Space Center's Robonaut, almost a look-alike for a "Star Wars" storm trooper, are astonishingly humanoid.

If NASA indeed chooses this option and it succeeds, it will represent a valuable reprieve for the Hubble, by now one of science's most legendary tools, and a breakthrough for the use of robotics to explore space.

Some of the fanciful imaginings in "Star Wars" may not be so long ago and far away anymore.

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