This morning, 350 miles above the Atlantic Ocean, a tender goodbye took place. Astronauts aboard the Atlantis space shuttle released the Hubble Space Telescope to conclude the telescope’s fifth and final repair mission. The better-than-new observatory is expected to send back breathtaking images and mind-rattling information about the universe for another five to seven years. As the NASA officials in charge of the telescope put it: “Hubble is now ready to resume its role as humankind’s most powerful eyes on the universe” [AP].
During this mission, Atlantis astronauts spent more than 36 hours over five marathon spacewalks to make upgrades and outfit Hubble with new instruments. These included a panchromatic wide-field camera that should be able to see objects formed just 500 million years after the universe’s birth in the big bang explosion some 13.7 billion years ago [Reuters]. But there were occasional glitches: When a bolt wouldn’t come free on the Sunday spacewalk, astronaut Mike Massimino had to resort to brute force, jerking the railing that it held in place until the bolt snapped. There was also an ill-timed incident this morning involving an antenna.
During the final spacewalk this morning, two astronauts installed a new set of batteries, a Fine Guidance Sensor that helps aim the telescope and protective steel-foil sheets on the telescope’s exterior [ABC News]. Following these successful procedures, astronaut and astronomer John Grunsfeld paused and waxed poetic about the Hubble. Grunsfeld knows the telescope intimately: He flew on two prior upgrade missions, and has also studied pulsars and gamma ray sources using the Hubble. As he prepared to reenter the space shuttle, he reflected on the telescope’s grand purpose. “Hubble is not just a satellite,” Dr. Grunsfeld said. “It’s a symbol of humanity’s quest for knowledge.” Quoting Arthur C. Clarke, the author and space visionary, he continued, “The only way to find the limits of the possible is by going past them into the impossible” [The New York Times]. Then, after his brief speech was over, he had to go put some insulation on the tip of an antenna, whose cap he had accidentally knocked off several minutes before.
The space shuttle is expected to return to Earth on Friday morning. As for the space telescope’s future, there will be no more visits. Sometime after 2020, NASA will send a robotic craft to steer it back into the atmosphere and a watery grave. The spacewalkers installed a docking ring for just that purpose [AP]. But it won’t be the end of our space-based stargazing. NASA plans to launch the more sophisticated James Webb Space Telescope in 2014, which will take up where Hubble leaves off.
80beats: Space Shuttle Grabs Hubble Telescope, and Astronauts Begin Repairs
80beats: Space Shuttle Will Blast Off Today for Hubble’s Final Repair Mission