Friday, October 27, 2006

To the sun (and Hubble)

A couple of days ago, NASA launched a major new scientific mission: the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory.

No, it's not a diplomatic effort, though as an aside that is part of the plot of the science fiction novel Cusp, by Robert Metzger. It's a mission to observe the sun and study solar flares.

Scientists hope the $550 million, two-year mission will help them understand why these eruptions occur, how they form and what path they take.

The eruptions _ called solar flares _ typically blow a billion tons of the sun's atmosphere into space at a speed of 1 million mph. The phenomenon is responsible for the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, the luminous display of lights seen in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

Besides being just plain cool -- the twin spacecraft will send back 3-D images of the sun -- and likely to provide a torrent of scientific data, this mission demonstrates why exploring our solar system is important. Besides causing the Northern Lights, solar flares damage satellites and disrupt communications networks. Learning how and why they develop will have a practical payoff back here on Earth.

With STEREO launched and on its way, NASA is now turning its attention to a more problematic issue: whether to mount one last repair mission to the Hubble telescope. A decision is expected to be announced on Tuesday.

If Griffin says "go," the mission could launch as early as 2008, providing 7,000 astronomers worldwide with five more years of access to the famous telescope — along with better instruments to explore the depths of the universe and its evolution.

But a Hubble mission would also be the only flight before the shuttle's retirement in 2010 that could not reach the International Space Station in case of emergency. That scenario has worried NASA since 2003, when the shuttle Columbia was damaged by debris on liftoff and burned up during reentry. All seven crew members died.

If NASA decides not to save Hubble, astronomers would be without an orbiting telescope until its successor, the James Webb telescope, is launched in 2013.

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