Hubble's Hope: I, Robot

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The endangered Hubble Space Telescope may have life yet, thanks to a NASA-sponsored program to develop a robot that could be its remote-control savior. For all the yeoman's work Hubble has done — peering deeper into the universe and farther back in time than eyes or earthbound instruments had ever managed — its prospects looked bleak a few months ago. The telescope was facing eventual loss of power and gyroscope failure, which would cut short its life-span by years. But given President Bush's ambitious plans for a manned moon and Mars program, NASA was looking for projects to chop. A shuttle mission to service the Hubble seemed pricey and, after the loss of the shuttle Columbia, risky. So the agency said it would let the telescope expire in 2007.

But scientists howled, and in February the agency sent out a request for proposals from engineers for ways to mount a robotic Hubble mission that would extend the telescope's life to 2012. So far, 26 proposals have come in. They include ones for a 25-ft. stick-figure robot from the University of Maryland and a pair of pivoting arms by the Canadian group that developed the shuttles' manipulator arm. The most personable is NASA's Robonaut, which has a torso, arms and a head that are adult size and a leg that plugs in for stability and power. The Robonaut was built as a spacewalk assistant to hand astronauts tools and perform the butler-like task of brushing contaminants off their space suits. But with five-fingered hands and cameras for eyes, it may be perfect for the repair job on Hubble. If NASA okays the mission, the agency has until the end of the year to pick the winning robot. Simon Cowell, are you listening?