White House probes NASA, as Europeans launch two advanced telescopes

NASA is looking a little long in the tooth, in a week that the last upgrade mission to Hubble launches and the European Space Agency sends up two cutting-edge telescopes. Meanwhile, the White House will spend the summer looking at hard at NASA's Constellation and Ares programs.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

NASA is looking a little long in the tooth compared to the European Space Agency. Monday, NASA will launch a long-awaited repair mission to install improved instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope, originally launched in 1990.

Thursday, the Europeans will launch two much more advanced telescopes (right) that can see photons in a much wider infrared wavelength than the optical light that Hubble sees. The Europeans' one-up-manship comes as the White House announced a major review of NASA operations, to be completed by August, that threatens serious changes in the way NASA does business.

Norman Augustine, the head of the review panel, announced as much Thursday, CBS News' William Harwood reported.

I think one of the chronic problems NASA's encountered over the years has been that it usually had more programs than it had money. That can be dangerous when you're doing something as difficult as NASA does. So as we go through this evaluation, if we were to find there were reasons the budget didn't make sense in any way, I can assure you we would not be bashful about pointing that out, and I suspect the administration would want to know that anyway.

The big story with NASA, Harwood reported, is that the White House projected budget for 2010 released last week shows a $3.1 billion cut in NASA's exploration activities. "If the three-plus billion dollars in the out years, if that cut stands, then there's no moon by 2020 and maybe none at all," an senior space manager at NASA told Harwood.

Meanwhile, the Europeans are launching on Thursday Herschel, an infrared telescope with the largest mirror ever launched into space (11.5 feet across), and Planck, which will study the cosmic background radiation of the universe, the Miami Herald reports.

Infrared is important because light from the oldest objects are stretched out to the red end of the spectrum. The U.S.'s best effort at infrared is the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched five years ago with a measly 2.8 feet mirror.

"Herschel is big brother to Spitzer," Hubble news director Ray Villard said. "Herschel does everything Spitzer does, but does it better."

... "Planck will provide the deepest, clearest, sharpest and least obstructed view of the beginning of the universe ever seen," said Benjamin Wandelt, a Planck scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It will be "a quantum leap in our ability to address fundamental questions about how the universe began."

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