NASA shuttle blasts off on Hubble life-saving mission

Space shuttle Atlantis successfully lifts off in plume of fire and smoke this afternoon

While the Hubble Space Telescope was making some pre-shutdown observations today, the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off on a repair mission to the 19-year-old orbiter.

At precisely 2:01 p.m. ET, the shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (see video) amid a plume of fire and smoke.

The seven-astronaut crew this afternoon began its 11-day mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble telescope, which is orbiting about 350 miles above Earth. The shuttle mission -- the last one going to the Hubble -- is expected to give the orbiter at least another five years of life, according to the space agency.

About nine minutes after liftoff, Atlantis' three main engines were cut off as the space shuttle entered orbit. Its external fuel tank was jettisoned.

The shuttle is scheduled to rendezvous with Hubble on Wednesday, when mission specialist Mike Massimino will use the shuttle's robotic arm to reach out and grab the orbiter and pull it into the shuttle's payload bay. On Thursday, two astronauts will make the first of the mission's five spacewalks.

The shuttle is carrying 22,500 pounds of equipment for the telescope, including new grapple hooks and a platform that can be used in case future missions go up to service the telescope. This will be the shuttle's last trip to Hubble though, since the NASA space shuttles are scheduled to be retired next year.

This week's mission includes plans to install new gyroscopes, circuit boards and critical camera systems. The NASA astronauts are also bringing up a new backup computer system to replace an onboard backup system that had to be put into use last fall when the main system failed, leaving the Hubble unable to do much of its scientific work. NASA engineers made the remote switchover to a backup system from a room in the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., while the telescope hurtled along its orbit around Earth at 17,500 mph.

Ed Ruitberg, deputy program manager for the Hubble Space Telescope, said in an interview with Computerworld last week that the upgrades and repairs should not only get Hubble back in perfect running order but will make it more powerful than ever.

"I would say Hubble is one of NASA's most important missions," said Ruitberg. "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."

Massimino plans on Twittering about his time in space and his work on the telescope. He posted a message on the microblogging site this morning, noting that he had his space suit on. "Next stop: Earth Orbit!!" he Twittered. The astronaut has been Twittering about his mission training for the past month and has so far attracted more than 211,000 Twitter followers. How much he will be able to Twitter from space depends on how often he can fit it into his busy schedule, he noted.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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