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Hubble's new camera is partly out of focus

A $105-million infrared camera installed on the Hubble Space Telescope by spacewalking astronauts last month is partly out of focus and will not last as long as expected, NASA said Wednesday.

"We are going to lose some lifetime. There's no question about that," said Ed Weiler, NASA's chief Hubble scientist.

Scientists hope to work around the problem with the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, or Nicmos, and still collect all or at least most of the desired data on black holes and far-off stars and galaxies, Weiler said.

Nicmos has three highly sensitive infrared detectors stored next to a 225-pound block of nitrogen ice to keep them operating at minus-355 degrees. One of the cameras is far out of focus, Weiler said. The two others are working well.

Scientists believe the ice expanded more than predicted, bumping camera No. 3 out of focus.

The Nicmos cooling setup is a new technology, Weiler said, adding: "The models that it was built upon were not totally correct."

In addition, the expanding ice pushed a warm piece of metal against the ice container, causing the nitrogen to dissipate into gas faster than expected, Weiler said. If the trouble persists, the lifetime of Nicmos could be halved to 2\ years.

As a result, scientists are scrambling to push up the star-gazing schedule for Nicmos.

Nicmos, about the size of a telephone booth, was designed and built by the University of Arizona. It represents one-fourth of the entire Hubble science program.

NASA launched Hubble in 1990 with a flawed primary mirror that left the telescope nearsighted. Spacewalking astronauts installed corrective lenses in 1993.

Nicmos and other science equipment were installed in February during a second service visit to the $2-billion Hubble.