The next celestial quest

"The people who brought a first-class astronomical observatory to Bainbridge Island have a new goal:Outer space.The Battle Point Astronomical Association and its president, Mac Gardiner, want to attach a telescope for amateur astronomers to the International Space Station, which they believe would produce a steady stream of breathtaking photographs.When the Hubble Telescope was pointed at the blackest part of the sky, it saw tens and tens of thousands of galaxies - brand new, Gardiner said.Although its public profile has declined in recent years, the Boeing-built International Space Station is an ongoing project, Gardiner said. In fact, most of the recent space-shuttle launches have involved the ISS.But the station's mission has changed over the years. During the height of the Cold War, the space station was something the United States needed to have before the Soviet Union got one. Then, while enthusiasm for manned space flight persisted, the station was seen as a launching pad for manned expeditions to the planets.Now, the purpose is scientific. NASA and Boeing are inviting applications from people interested in seeing their project included, and will select from among the submissions.But the amateur telescope does not claim to be a scientific project. It is intended simply to let amateurs satisfy their curiosity about the cosmos. So why would NASA even consider such a thing? It's good public relations, Gardiner says.The Hubble is available to take pictures only a small portion of the time, Gardiner said. But those pictures are what has created public support for that project. The Hubble will go out of service in a few years, and NASA will need a stream of pictures to maintain public awareness and support.That combination of sky-gazing idealism and down-to-earth realpolitik has attracted the attention of decision-makers.Have space station, need telescopeGardiner, who spent 45 years at Boeing before retiring in 1989, ran the idea past a Boeing vice president, who put him in touch with ISS project director Brewster Shaw. Shaw was interested enough to enlist the Astronomical League, a coalition of amateur organizations, to define more specifically what kind of instrument the amateur star-gazing community would need. Boeing then intends to draft a package of bid documents for the telescope.Boeing has completed some preliminary feasibility studies - enough to have determined that the telescope should be mounted outside the space station. It has also been determined that when the telescope is operational, it will detach itself from the station's structure and float in outer space.To take pictures, the device has to be absolutely still for a long period of time, Gardiner said. If the telescope were attached to the station, the vibrations would make it useless. But it only needs to be a fraction of an inch away to be absolutely stable.The device would be aimed at specific celestial coordinates. The instrument will precisely counteract the space station's orbital motion, just as ground-based telescopes counteract the earth's motion, to stay locked on the same spot in space. That allows for the really long exposure time necessary to produce pictures of deep-space phenomena.The telescope's location in space makes all the difference in the world, Gardiner said.It's all about the signal-to-noise ratio, he said. On earth, the atmosphere moves, and it diffuses light. Only is outer space is it truly dark and interference-free.The space-borne telescope would be equipped with what is basically a digital camera, Gardiner said. It would receive images, convert them into electronic data and transmit that data to an Earth-based computer, where the data would be reconverted into visual images.One stipulation in our proposal is that the pictures will be available over the Internet to anyone, Gardiner said.The plan calls for amateurs to request pictures of a designated spot in the sky. Once they demonstrate their ability to properly process the data, their request will be placed in line.We plan to give everybody two chances, Gardiner said. If their coordinates aren't exactly right, we'll let them move it over a little bit.The amateur astronomer's magazine Sky and Telescope has drafted a list of questions about the project. Gardiner will discuss his answers at a meeting at 7 p.m. tonight (Wednesday) at the Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park.The most important of those questions, not surprisingly, is who will pay the cost, estimated at up to $70 million.Congress would need to come up with the money, Gardiner said. And it would have to be a supplemental appropriation - it can't be just moving money around in the ISS budget, because it's already over budget.And that's where the support of thousands of amateur astronomers comes in.They'll have to contact their members of Congress and try to win their support, he said.If the money is forthcoming, and if all else goes well, Gardiner says the telescope could be operating by 2006.Should that occur, Gardiner said, he would use his viewing opportunity to focus on the things that happen when stars are just getting born.His personal interest, he said, arises out of his fascination with precision instruments and with the majesty of the universe.I'm curious about what's going on up there, and with just how beautiful things can be, he said. The organization has a full slate of autumn lectures and events planned; for information, call Gardiner at 842-3717. "

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