Hubble Fixed and on its Way

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - A rejuvenated Hubble Space
Telescope, more powerful than ever, departed the space shuttle
Tuesday and sailed off for new discoveries.

"It's showtime for us now," said program scientist Eric Smith.

Hubble - considered to be at its prime following five days of
repairs and upgrades - was gently dropped overboard by the shuttle
Atlantis astronauts, the last humans to see the 19-year-old
observatory up close.

It was NASA's last service call and, despite spacewalking
moments ranging from anguish to elation, turned out to be "a 110
percent successful mission," said senior project scientist David
Leckrone.

"Today begins the second Hubble revolution," an emotional
Leckrone said from Houston.

Smith happily ticked off a few of Hubble's early
accomplishments: determining the age of the universe, finding dark
matter, studying planets around other stars. "Now it's even
better. I am really looking forward to what comes next," he said.

The shuttle and telescope had just crossed the Atlantic, and
were soaring 350 miles above the coast of northwestern Africa, when
robot arm operator Megan McArthur set Hubble free. Then the shuttle
slowly backed away.

"It's safely back on its journey of exploration as we begin
steps to conclude ours," radioed commander Scott Altman. "Looking
back on this mission, it's been an incredible journey for us as
well."

With Hubble flying on its own again, the seven astronauts looked
ahead to Friday's planned landing. But first they had to inspect
their ship one last time to make sure it had not suffered any
serious damage from space junk. The wing and nose survey, similar
to one performed last week to check for launch damage, consumed
their afternoon.

The telescope's unusually high orbit had placed the shuttle and
its crew at increased risk and, because of the lack of a refuge,
prompted NASA to keep a rescue ship on standby until the end of the
11-day flight. To improve their safety, the astronauts dropped
Atlantis into an egg-shaped orbit that is, much of the time, lower
than the telescope's junk-ridden orbit.

During five consecutive days of spacewalks loaded with drama,
Atlantis' crew labored tirelessly on the observatory. Four men
working in teams of two gave the telescope two new high-powered
science instruments and a suite of other up-to-date equipment, and
fixed two broken instruments, something never before attempted in
orbit.

The astronauts persevered, despite stuck bolts, ill-fitting
gyroscopes and flyaway shreds of insulation. Two of them were ready
to jump into spacewalking action one last time if a last-minute
problem had cropped up Tuesday morning. None did.

At a news briefing, flight director Tony Ceccacci noted there
were those "who thought we couldn't do this."

"They always told us, 'you're too aggressive, you're going to
get in trouble,"' he said. "I don't want to say, we told you so,
but we told you so."

The Hubble team hopes to resume celestial observations by the
end of summer.

At the end of this month, the improved Hubble will take its
first pictures, but only to make sure its instruments are working.
The image will be a well-studied cluster of stars in the
constellation Sagittarius that go by the boring name NGC6681.
Astronomers have known about this group of stars for nearly 230
years. It is about 29,000 light years away.

Astronomers expect to get another five to 10 years of use out of
the iconic telescope, thanks to the astronauts' extraordinary
effort.

As for Hubble's future after that, 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.
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On the Net:
NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission-pages/hubble/main/index.html


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