Space Shuttle Launches to Save Hubble Telescope

Space Shuttle Launches to Save Hubble Telescope
The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off May 11 carrying seven astronauts bound for the Hubble Space Telescope. Atlantis' STS-125 mission is the last planned manned visit to the orbiting observatory.
(Image: © Roger Guillemette for SPACE.com)

Thisstory was updated at 4:18 p.m. EDT.

CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - The space shuttle Atlantis blasted off into a Florida skyMonday to kick off a long-awaited mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope.

Atlantisthundered into space at 2:01 p.m. (1801 GMT) from a seaside launch pad here atNASA?s Kennedy Space Center and began its risky mission to overhaul the 19-year-oldHubble for the last time.

It is thefirst time in seven years that astronauts are returning to Hubble. The mission,NASA?s last flight to the iconic space telescope, has been delayed since a partbroke on the telescope last year and the servicing and upgrade plan had to berevised.

?At lastour launch has come along, it?s been a long time coming,? Atlantis commanderScott Altman said just before liftoff. ?Everyone has pulled together. We?retaking a little piece of all of us into space.?

?Enjoy theride, pal,? NASA launch director Mike Leinbach radioed back.

Atlantis isdue to arrive at Hubble Wednesday. The shuttle experienced two minor glitches -a circuit breaker problem and a flaky sensor that sounded spurious alarms duringliftoff - but neither had an impact on launch. If all goes well, Atlantisastronauts will upgrade Hubble to be more powerful and capable than everbefore.

Headed toHubble with Altman are shuttle pilot Gregory C. Johnson and mission specialistsMegan McArthur, Michael Good, John Grunsfeld, Michael Massimino and AndrewFeustel. Altman, Grunsfeld and Massimino have flownto Hubble before. The rest are making their first spaceflight.

Highstakes at Hubble

Atlantis?flight to Hubble is NASA?s fifth and finalservice call on the space telescope since its 1990 launch. NASA expected30,000 people at its spaceport to watch today?s high-profile blast off.Thousands more were expected to watch elsewhere near the Cape.

No othermission has been more planned or more complicated, Hubble managers said.

?There?snot much margin for error,? said Preston Burch, NASA's Hubble program managerat the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. ?We?ll need flawlessexecution from our astronaut team.?

The missioncosts about $1.1 billion, and nearly $10 billion has been invested in Hubblesince its conception.

Thetelescope was launched with a flawed mirror that gave Hubble blurry vision andled many to consider it ?a national joke,? said Ed Weiler, NASA?s chief ofscience missions. Astronauts added corrective mirrors - essentially glasses -to fix Hubble in 1993 in what Weiler calls the ?miracle in spacemission.?  Atlantis? mission is expected to extend Hubble?s life throughat least 2014, if not beyond, he added.

But there?sadded risk for the spaceflight.

A secondspace shuttle - the Endeavour orbiter - is on standby to flya rescue mission if Atlantis is damaged beyond repair and strands its crewin orbit. Atlantis astronauts will not be able to reach the safe haven of theInternational Space Station if their shuttle is critically damaged becauseHubble?s position 350 miles (553 km) above Earth is higher and in a verydifferent orbit than the 220-mile (354-km) high station.

That riskprompted NASA to cancel the Hubble flight in 2004 in the wake of the tragicColumbia accident that killed seven astronauts a year earlier. The mission wasresurrected in 2006 after NASA resumed shuttle flights and successfully testedorbiter inspection and repair techniques.

Atlantisalso has a slightly increased risk of damage from micrometeorites or space junk,while attached to Hubble, primarily due to a crash between two satellites aboveEarth earlier this year. The shuttle has a 1-in-229 chance of suffering amortal blow from space debris, the space agency figures, but officials say therisk does not exceed NASA safety requirements.

Theultimate upgrade

Hubble cansee galaxies and other objects that formed about 700 million years after thebirth of the universe, but this mission would push that boundary back to about500 million years after the theoretical Big Bang. The universe is 13.7 billionyears old.

?I like tothink of everything we?ve done up to now as prologue,? said David Leckrone, theHubble program?s senior scientist at NASA?s Goddard Space Flight Center inGreenbelt, Md.

Theastronauts will run a five-spacewalkmarathon to tune up Hubble. They?ll replace the telescope?s batteries andgyroscopes, as well as install two new cameras. Spacewalkers will also attemptto repair two others that are broken, but were never designed to be fixed inspace.

Hubblescientists are hopeful, but there?s no guarantee the fixes will work.

?I thinkthis is going to be a nail-biter all the way up until we actually do the repair,?said Grunsfeld, the mission?s lead spacewalker.

Grunsfeld,an astrophysicist-turned-astronaut and self professed ?Hubble hugger,? ismaking his fifth spaceflight and third trip to Hubble.

?I reallyfeel like Hubble is kind of a friend,? Grunsfeld said before launch. ?And I?mgoing to visit an old friend that I haven?t seen in a long time.?

Atlantis isalso carrying an IMAX 3D camera to document the Hubble servicing mission for adocumentary slated for release in Spring 2010.

Monday?slaunch marked the 30th flight for Atlantis and NASA?s 126th shuttle mission. Itis NASA?s last mission to Hubble and the final flight not bound for theInternational Space Station. The space agency plans to launch at least sevenmore shuttle missions to complete station construction before NASA retires itsthree-orbiter fleet in 2010.

Atlantisand its crew will spend about a week attached to Hubble and are due to land onMay 22.

SPACE.comis providing continuous coverage of NASA's last mission to the Hubble SpaceTelescope with senior editor Tariq Malik at Cape Canaveral and reporter ClaraMoskowitz in New York. Clickhere for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.

 

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