NASA mounts its final manned mission to the nearly 20-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. Armed with new cameras, a new spectrograph and other instrument sets, astronauts aim to add another five years to the life of the Hubble, one of the most expensive science projects in history.
The space shuttle
Atlantis successfully launched May 11 for an 11-day repair mission to the
Hubble Space Telescope. For NASA's shuttle program, due to be retired in late
2010, it is the last service call to the 19-year-old Hubble.
The launch from the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida went went off without incident at 2:02 EDT with
Atlantis scheduled for a May 13 arrival at Hubble, orbiting at 342 miles above
The seven-man crew will
conduct five spacewalks
to install two new instruments, repair two inactive
ones and perform component replacements over the 11-day mission to keep Hubble
operational through at least 2014.
In addition to the
scheduled repairs, Atlantis will also carry a replacement Science Instrument
Command and Data Handling Unit for Hubble. Hubble's current system stopped
working on Sept. 27, 2008, delaying the servicing mission
until the replacement was ready.
"It's been seven
years since we've serviced the Hubble space telescope," said Project
Scientist David Lekrone. "And that interval of time, seven years, is twice
as long as we should go in terms of servicing intervals. As a consequence of
that, over the last few years we've seen significant deterioration within the
set of scientific instruments that we provide to the astronomical community.
The toolkit that the community uses to do all kinds of science has really
diminished in its capabilities."
Commanding the mission is
veteran astronaut Scott Altman with retired Navy Capt. Gregory C. Johnson
serving as pilot for the Atlantis. Experienced spacewalkers John Grunsfeld and
Mike Massimimo and rookies Andrew Feustel, Michael Good and Megan McArthur
round out the crew.
NASA describes the flight
as a "mission to once more push the boundaries of how deep in space and
far back in time humanity can see. It's a flight to again upgrade what already
may be the most significant satellite ever launched."
added, "Hubble puts cutting-edge science together with a visual image that
grabs the public's imagination. I think that's the first step in exploration.
Because Hubble takes light that's been traveling for billions of years, sucks
it in and shows it to us. It's like taking you on a journey 13 and a half
billion light years away while you sit there at home and look out at the
The astronauts' primary focus on the voyage will be to replace Hubble's
Wide Field and Planetary Camera
with a newer, more powerful model and to
install a new spectrograph, an instrument that breaks light into its component
colors, revealing information about the objects emitting the light. The Cosmic
Origins Spectrograph sees exclusively in ultraviolet light and will improve
Hubble's ultraviolet sensitivity at least 10 times, and up to 70 times when
observing extremely faint objects.
The new wide field camera
will allow Hubble to take large-scale, extremely clear and detailed pictures
over a very wide range of colors. The new camera and spectrograph will
complement the scientific instruments already on the telescope, in particular
the workhorse Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging
"After we get done
with it, it's not an old telescope," Project Scientist David Lekrone told CBS News
. "Every subsystem that needs refurbishment is being
refurbished and it's getting a new complement of instruments. So the only part
of it that's old is the optical metering structure and the glass. And the glass
doesn't care. When they're done, it really is not an old telescope, it's a new
The repair work and the
installation will require a different type of spacewalk than astronauts
encounter on spacewalks at the International Space Station.
"It's more like
brain surgery than construction," explained Lead Flight Director Tony
Ceccacci. "On station spacewalks, you're installing large pieces of
equipment-trusses, modules, etc.-and putting it together like an erector set.
You can't do that with Hubble. Hubble spacewalks are comparable to standing at
an operating table, doing very dexterous work."