NASA's souped-up Hubble set to probe history of the cosmos

Scientist: 'Surgery in shuttle bay' a total success; Hubble now at 'top of its game'

With the Hubble Space Telescope upgraded and more powerful than ever, the orbiter soon will be looking out toward the edge of the observable universe, probing the early history of the cosmos.

With two brand-new instruments, a new computer unit and several repaired instruments, Hubble is more powerful than ever after 19 years aloft, said Malcolm Niedner, deputy senior project scientist for Hubble. "We always take Hubble's capabilities forward by factors of 10, 20 and 30 in key performance areas," said Niedner, who has been on the Hubble team for 16 years and involved in all five of its servicing missions. "Hubble is absolutely at the top of its game."

Niedner said the space shuttle Atlantis mission to repair and upgrade the telescope was a total success, with the astronauts accomplishing more than NASA had hoped for.

"I am absolutely overwhelmed by what the astronauts did. I am overwhelmed by what just happened in space. And a lot of it was really hard," said Niedner. "The two instrument repairs were always viewed as an experiment. When you're opening up instruments and doing surgery in the shuttle bay, the odds of success are obviously going to be less. We didn't just dust off an old design. As a scientist, what excites me the most is that we enhanced the telescope significantly."

The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis is on the tail end of its 11-day mission to get the Hubble not only back in working order but to upgrade what has become one of the most important tools to the world's astronomers. During its 19 years in orbit, Hubble's discoveries have been so important that they have 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 mysterious force called dark energy, is expanding at an accelerating rate. And Hubble also showed that most galaxies in the universe contain massive black holes.

To keep this powerful scientific tool running, in five back-to-back spacewalks the astronauts replaced all six of the Hubble's gyroscopes and all six of its batteries, along with a computer unit that had failed last fall and was running on a backup system.

Those fixes alone should keep the Hubble running for another five years, if not seven or eight years, according to Niedner.

On the scientific instrument side, astronauts restored one broken-down wide-field imaging camera, while also installing a brand-new, more powerful one. It was the same case with Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph: An existing one was repaired and a whole new one was added. The spectrograph is NASA's major black-hole hunter.

"This is only the second service mission where we put two brand-new instruments on the telescope," Niedner noted. "This is going to open up very important possibilities for Hubble that we just didn't have before. The new ones themselves take Hubble to places it's never been. The restored instruments are still very potent instruments. Because they have characteristics the new ones don't, with these four we have a marvelously diverse collection of instruments and capabilities.

"We'll be able to make discoveries that weren't possible before," he added.

Niedner said NASA scientists and astronomers worldwide are hoping the telescope, with its new capabilities, will be able to peer back into the most distant universe.

Previously, the Hubble could look back to about 800 million years after the Big Bang, which is believed to be the cosmic explosion that marked the creation of the universe. Now Niedner said the telescope should be able to look as far back as 600 million to maybe even 500 million years after the Big Bang.

"Why is another 200 or 300 million years important? Think about the fraction. There's a lot of evolution going on in those 300 million years," he explained. "If we can see another 30% or 40% back toward the beginning, that could make a big difference in what we understand about the early universe and how things evolved."

Niedner said that point in time is critical to understand because it's believed that evolution was very rapid then.

"It's real important, because we are part of that history," he added. "The Milky Way, the planet we walk on -- it's [all] part of that grand history of the universe. If we really want to understand planet Earth, we have to understand it in the larger context of how stars form and solar systems form. If we want to know how stars form, we have to know a lot more about galaxies than we do. It all ties together to the very small and local to the very large and distant. We're all made of stars. The material that you and I and everyone walking this planet are made out of is all born of stars."

After undergoing about four months of testing and the calibrating of its new instruments, Hubble will use its full tool belt to detect the chemicals in the atmospheres of Earth-size exoplanets. It also will study black holes, dark energy and dark matter, along with deep star formation in fledgling galaxies.

Hundreds of astronomers are using Hubble to feed information for about 200 ongoing, individual science programs.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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