European rocket to lift NASA telescope

European rocket to lift NASA telescope


WASHINGTON — U.S. and European officials are close to a deal to launch
a $4.5 billion U.S. space telescope on a European rocket from a
facility in French Guiana.

The unusual arrangement involves no cash but will save NASA tens of
millions of dollars in launch costs at a time when the agency’s budget
is shifting to support an estimated $100 billion program to send
astronauts back to the moon.

In exchange for the launch, NASA will give the European Space Agency
an undisclosed amount of research time on the orbiting observatory,
the powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The deal’s near-done status was confirmed Wednesday by Aaron Lewis, a
U.S. spokesman for Arianespace, a European launch company.

“We’re working closely with the European Space Agency to further its
goals when it comes to international cooperation,” Lewis said.

Lewis said it was his understanding the State Department reviewed and
approved a memorandum of understanding between NASA and ESA. A
spokesman for NASA did not immediately return a call seeking a comment
on the agreement.

In November, NASA officials announced the launch of the James Webb
Space Telescope would be delayed until 2013, nearly two years later
than previously scheduled.

Space agency officials blamed the delay on initial budget and schedule
projections that were too optimistic.

The Webb telescope will be a powerful observatory, far more capable
than Hubble, which is nearing the end of its service life.

The new telescope will be equipped with a 20-foot mirror, almost three
times larger than Hubble’s primary mirror. The Webb observatory will
also be equipped with infrared camera equipment.

Astronomers expect the new observatory will reveal even more about the
origins and structure of the universe than the historic findings by

The Ariane 5 is the newest of the European launchers, but it endured
tough growing pains. It blew up twice during launches and two other
flights were also considered failures. The latest failure came in 2002
when the rocket dumped a pair of satellites into the Atlantic Ocean.
The rocket has flown successfully several times since then.

“Buy America” provisions in U.S. law prevent NASA from purchasing
launch services directly from the European launch company.

A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, said the senator
supports the NASA-ESA agreement.

“This is a case where we have international partners helping defray
the cost of putting a satellite up and all of us will benefit from the
science we gain from the telescope,” said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman

NASA got approval from the White House last year to use an Ariane 5
launch vehicle, according to information the space agency provided
Nelson’s office, Gulley said.

Ersilia Vaudo, an official with the ESA’s Washington, D.C., office
said she believed the agreement was still pending. “We hope it will be
finalized soon,” said Vaudo.

Contact Wheeler at 202-906-8135