NASA: Upgrade mission will give Hubble superpowers

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off Monday to enable telescope to make bigger discoveries

When the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis finishes its latest asignment, the Hubble Space Telescope, which is already considered one of NASA's most important tools, will be far more powerful than ever.

And that will put Hubble in the position to make more, and more important, discoveries in the next five years than it has in the past two decades, said Ed Ruitberg, deputy program manager for the Hubble Space Telescope.

"I would say Hubble is one of NASA's most important missions," Ruitberg told Computerworld. "With the number of discoveries it's already made, as we go into the next decade, Hubble's discoveries should increase. In fact, with the new capabilities that we're installing. Hubble will be better prepared to make more important discoveries."

During the 19 years it's been aloft, Hubble's discoveries have been so important that they've forced academics to revise astronomy text books, said Ruitberg. It took deep photographs of the universe and captured images of the birth and death of stars.

It also played a key role in discovering that the universe, driven by a force called dark energy, is expanding at an accelerating rate. And Hubble also showed that most galaxies in the universe contain massive black holes that are at times the mass of our own sun.

The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off Monday at 2:01 p.m. EDT. The seven-astronaut crew is headed aloft on the final shuttle service mission to the orbiting telescope. In the four previous missions to service Hubble, astronauts have made a total of 18 spacewalks. On next week's mission, there will be five spacewalks to install new batteries, a new backup computer system, and new gyroscopes, circuit boards and critical camera systems.

Ed Campion, a spokesman for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said this will be the most challenging mission yet to service the telescope. The difference, he noted, is that the astronauts won't just be switching out one big box of electronics for another. This time, they'll actually be opening up science instruments and making repairs.

Ruitberg agreed that this will be a very tough mission and that the astronauts' schedule will be tight.

"It's that we've got five days packed full of activities," said Ruitberg. "The repairs will be more challenging because we're doing them at a level we've never done before. There are a new set of tools developed just to do these tasks. The challenge is to get it all done right the first time because we don't have time in our schedule to go back and redo something. If we did have to go back and redo something, something else would have to drop off the plate."

The shuttle, carrying 22,500 pounds of equipment for the telescope, is scheduled to rendezvous with Hubble on Wednesday. After it arrives, the space shuttle's robotic arm will grab onto the orbiter and pull it into the shuttle's payload bay. The first spacewalk, expected to last about six and a half hours, will take place on Thursday. The walks will continue every day until Monday, May 18.

The mission is expected to keep Hubble operating through 2014.

Atlantis Mission specialist Mike Massimino will report on his activies on the mission using the Twitter microblogging site. He has been Twittering about his mission training for the past several weeks, and has so far attracted more than 194,000 followers. He said the Twittering schedule will depnd on his availability during the busy mission.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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