The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center May 11 on an ambitious final 11-day mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope to keep it operational for at least five more years. So far, so good.
From tweets to system tweaks to major instrument upgrades, the seven-person crew of the Atlantis has stayed on course through two of the five total scheduled spacewalks.
Arriving at the Hubble May 13, astronauts have installed a new wide-field camera, and replaced the Hubble’s six gyroscopes and the telescope’s Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, the computer that sends commands to the Hubble’s science instruments and formats science data for transmission to the ground.
Still ahead before departing May 19 for a May 21 touchdown on Earth: installing the COS (Cosmic Origins Spectrograph), a new power supply circuit board and other instrument upgrades. The COS is an instrument that breaks light into its component colors, revealing information about the object emitting the light. COS sees exclusively in ultraviolet light and will improve the Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity at least 10 times, and up to 70 times when observing extremely faint objects.
Combined with the new wide-field camera, which will allow the Hubble to take large-scale, extremely clear and detailed pictures over a very wide range of colors, the COS 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,” NASA 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.”
On Atlantis’ return trip home, NASA officials will be keeping a particularly close watch on Atlantis’ heat shields, which suffered minor damage from launch debris. NASA said Atlantis suffered minor dents along an area of about 21 inches spanning four of the shuttle’s thermal tiles located on the starboard side of the spacecraft.
In what has become a standard routine for shuttle flights since the 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven crew members due to a damaged heat shield, the Atlantis crew spent the day before reaching the Hubble inspecting the heat shields with sensors attached to a boom. The crew reported they found a scratch across several heat-resistant ceramic tiles.
“Everybody is feeling pretty good that it’s not something potentially serious,” NASA astronaut Joe Burbank told Atlantis commander Scott Altman. Flight Director Tony Ceccacci said that upon an initial look, damage found during the inspection appeared to be minor and likely not a concern, but he said experts will analyze it, as is normal, to be certain the shuttle’s heat shielding is in good shape.
And, finally, Atlantis’ first week in space also featured the first tweet from outer space. Although the crew is unable to connect to the Internet while in space, astronaut Mike Massimino e-mailed a message to command control to be tweeted.
“From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!” wrote Massimino.