On Tuesday last week a flurry of stories reported a bolt-from-the-blue, possible windfall for NASA-supported astronomy. Agents of the spooky side invited them to check out some surplus hardware that was commissioned by the National Reconnaissance Office but never used: the skeletons of two space (ie spy) telescopes equipped with well-crafted mirrors every bit as wide as that of the aging Hubble - but with wide angle geometry able to take in a bigger piece of the sky. Stubbie Hubbles, some called'em
In last week's post I asked a bunch of questions such as who made them, are they representatives of the KH (KeyHole) spy sats the US has used for near-forever, and why are they in Rochester, NY when Lockheed and, more lately, Boeing are the prime contractors for the down-looking telescopes that scrutinize places where NRO suspects bad guys are at work? Most coverage failed to address such issues. Some of the initial coverage went further, especially by Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post who has some meaty hints at his blog. But news stories focussed on the most important angle: what is NASA getting? The fascinating other side - who gave it away - was murky.
Today here's a salute to the folks at Space News International, or SpaceNews.Com, a trade weekly, circ. 15,000 on paper plus web news based in Virginia. It and Space.com one were partner companies but now are distinct (thought they do use one another's copy now and again). It has a hefty string of correspondents around the world and a solid-looking lineup of staff editors and writers. Most of its stuff is behind a pay wall, but that's been lowered a bit lately. Here's one put on line Friday that particularly caught my eye anent the puzzling unanswered questions about those two left-over telescopes. One finds, while nosing around further, that a local newspaper also has a followup that put more flesh on the bones of the original, breaking news.
- Warren Ferster - Donated Space Telescopes are Remnants of Failed NRO Program ; Ferster, boss editor at Space News, tells us who made them, when, why, how they offer insight into a big-bucks NRO initiative that flopped and put some egg on Boeing's face, the subcontractor that got stuck with the leftovers in its Rochester, NY facility, and other info. It was surely eaten up by Space News's core audience in the aerospace industry but makes equally fine reading for anybody with an interest in NASA and related news. I looked at one paper, The Baltimore Sun, that a decade or so ago would have almsot surely dug around. Just a wire story is all I found.
- Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Jeffrey Blackwell: NASA given 2 space telescopes stored in Rochester ; This one even includes a map to the building housing the two aging but unborn spy birds, and had info on other spy stuff that Eastman Kodak did for the US and that is now emerging from the classified world.
- USA Today SCIENCEFAIR blog- Dan Vergano: NASA releases more spy telescope details: Vergano found a press sheet from NASA with further info on what it was NASA got. Actually, he or somebody found it thanks to the Freedom on Information Act. One gathers that the sheet was given to NASA's press office but not handed out. It should have been. It's a fact sheet. Aren't they things that are supposed to be provided without reporters having to ask for them explicitly, item by item?
In Other Space News...
While we're at it, there was more last week that Space News gave an extra spin. The news was that a small NASA X-ray satellite called GEMS, equipped to measure polarization of signals from matter near black holes and other violent, magnetically muscular places such as that, is cancelled. It was running over budget without even starting to bolt it together. Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was supervising it, Orbital Sciences of Virginia was prime contractor. NASA been ordered to stop its habit of make-believe budgeting. Delays in producing the instruments stretched out the whole thing - meaning payroll for a bunch of people was being met for longer than planned. Whack went the ax.
Initial stories focussed on the dollars and the basics of the science that GEMS was to have provided but were bloodless:
- AP - Marcia Dunn: NASA kills X-ray telescope, blames project's cost ; GEMS, Dunn properly explains, is not victim so much of NASA's tightfistedness as NASA's profligacy - or inattention - that sent the too-big-to-fail Webb Space Telescope's budget soaring in recent years to high that the agency has little choice but to eat its c
- Reuters - Irene Klotz: US space agency pulls plut on astronomy probe ;
- Space.com - Clara Moskowitz: NASA Scraps X-Ray Space Telescope Mission Over Rising Costs ;
Those are each good accounts, covering the essence of the cancellation - the science lost, the cost so far, and the savings by stopping now. Here's another good one from the outlet this post features. It followed by a few days. It has has some of the inside information that its specialty audience craves - and which science-centric readers around the country wouldn't mind seeing were local papers and other once-dominant outlets not in such persistent funks whose hole in the news flow 'new media' has only partly filled in.
- Space News - Brian Berger, Dan Leone: NASA Reaffirms Decision To Cancel GEMS X-ray Astronomy Mission ; Where we learn that, desperate to save the mission, its leaders had told NASA one thing they'd throw out the back door is a student-led instrument project at the University of Iowa.
There are more angles here that merit coverage, including poignant tales of pain among university researchers. Teams at Ohio State, MIT, Cornell, and other universities that we've all heard of - except for one of them I'd bet - are now having to tell grad students, post-docs, and their supervising professors to come up with new plans for their immediate futures. These can be wrenching disclocations in careers. The professors may have spent a decade or more preparing and focussing their research only to see it and their plans collapse. C'est la guerre budgétaire. By the way, the university that few in our readership will have heard of is the University of Oulu in (slight pause for guesswork) ........ Finland. A quick hunt finds it is so progressive it is phasing out regular telephones on campus. That's a story too! One wonders if the change has anything to do with cell phone maker Nokia. (NASA - Goddard Press Release from 2009 lists universities that had lined up to receive GEMS's data).
One More NASA Astronomy Story re GEMS:
- Washington Post - Brian Vastag: NASA mission to study black holes, supernovae and the sun is led by a woman ; I'll tell you, I think we've moved beyond the stage of civilization development where we slap our heads in amazement to learn that the leader of something technically complicated is a woman. Not that role model's need drop from the awareness of journalists, but why not "The woman with X-ray designs on secrets of the stars" or something that merely as a sly aside gets the gender angle in. Who wrote it this way, I dunno, but I would not blame Vastag. One reader makes the same point about the hed's clunker with a cleverness that may not penetrate some readers - writing in a comment "That's a funny looking kitchen." The telescope, NUstar, is to study different aspects of the same things that the canceled GEMS was after. While some accounts of GEMS's demise mention NUstar as a mission that might pick up some of its leftover slack, this piece on NUstar itself says nothing about its launch following so close on obits for what was to be an important complementary project.
- Charlie Petit