AS Halley's comet draws closer, space shuttle astronomers are preparing to take grandstand seats from which to view the show. However, the flight of the manned orbiting astronomical observatory Astro 1 next March is just one of several events which should make 1986 a banner year for space science. In January, the Voyager space probe is to give us our first close-up view of the distant planet Uranus. Then, in the fall, the shuttle is to orbit the Hubble Space Telescope, which should be able to see to the edge of the physically observable universe and peer into the heart of our own galaxy.
And, as a bonus for solar system exploration, a shuttle will launch the Galileo Jupiter probe on a trajectory that will allow the first close-in inspection of a major asteroid late in the year.
Although much good research has been done on previous missions, the shuttle is just beginning to fulfill its potential as a versatile space science facility. The European-supplied Spacelab, thoroughly tested, is being used routinely. Its next mission -- an all West German research program -- will launch shortly.
However, the Astro 1 Spacelab mission will be more than just another flight of some precision astronomical instruments. The Astro team takes care to call it the first of a number of flights of a true observatory. It has a battery of telescopes and other instruments to study stars and distant galaxies, comets, asteroids, planets, interstellar clouds rich in organic chemicals, and many other objects. It will be manned by working astronomers. Its March assignment includes a wide-ranging observing program, as well as tracking the famous comet.
Space Telescope -- which will be serviced over the years by shuttle astronauts -- opens a vast new opportunity to study the universe with a remotely controlled instrument that is free of atmospheric interference. Astro extends an opportunity for astronomers to accompany an observatory full of instruments into space on a series of missions.
A new era of space science is indeed opening.
The space shuttle system serves many purposes. Its struggle to find commercial success in the satellite launching business and concern about its military involvement tend to catch public attention. These should not overshadow its role on the scientific research frontier. In the long run, that is where the shuttle program may have one of its biggest payoffs.