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 Earth.
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."
Altman 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 universe."
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 Spectrograph.
"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 telescope."
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."