Image: Hubble Space Telescope
NASA via AFP - Getty Images file
NASA is gearing up for its fifth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, aimed at extending its life — and setting the stage for its eventual decline and death.
By
updated 1/8/2008 12:38:26 PM ET 2008-01-08T17:38:26

The orbiting space telescope that just won't quit collecting gobs of celestial data well beyond its expected twilight is set for a major tune-up and upgrade, NASA scientists said Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

This servicing mission will be the Hubble Space Telescope's fifth and last.

The latest word is that the space shuttle Atlantis could lift off in August with a crew of seven astronauts and a cargo of equipment, tools and new instruments for Hubble. But that launch date could change. "That's dependent upon the shuttle flights between now and the servicing mission," said Alan Stern, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. He added that safety always comes first.

Orbiting at about 350 miles (563 kilometers) above Earth, Hubble is above the atmosphere and doesn't have to contend with shifting pockets of air that distort images made by ground-based telescopes. This atmospheric distortion is the reason stars appear to twinkle.

Hubble's clear view has meant, for one, that over its 16-plus years in orbit, the telescope has sent back a spectacular photo album of sci-fi-like jets from black holes, galaxies in all stages of evolution and snapshots of planets in our own solar system.

"Hubble is, without exaggeration, a national treasure," Stern said, "and all of NASA is looking forward to seeing it receive this tune-up and upgrade."

The public's love for Hubble, along with political pressure, has played a role in NASA's decision to service the observatory, a mission deemed risky compared to other shuttle ventures.

Hubble hugger
During the 11-day Hubble service mission, which will include five spacewalks, shuttle astronauts will install two new science instruments plus a set of gyroscopes to help stabilize the telescope, as well as batteries and thermal blankets to keep the observatory operating until at least 2013.

Astronauts will also install a soft capture mechanism that will allow a future unmanned spacecraft to dock with Hubble in about 2020 and deorbit it for a controlled plunge and disposal in the ocean.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 Leading the spacewalks will be self-labeled "Hubble Hugger," astronaut John Grunsfeld, who had told Space.com last year he wanted to be on the mission.

"As both an astronaut and an astronomer, the opportunity to go back to Hubble is more than a dream come true," said Grunsfeld. "When we left Hubble in 2002, I was convinced it would be the last time I would see my friend Hubble Telescope," said Grunsfeld, wearing a NASA flight suit and space gloves.

However, he noted, "this mission promises to be quite challenging."

For instance, astronauts will attempt the first-ever on-orbit repair of two existing instruments, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS, and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which failed a year ago this month.

Installed on Hubble in February 1997, the STIS separates incoming light into its constituent colors, giving astronomers a chemical map of distant objects. Since its deployment, STIS has been critical in the confirmation of black holes at the centers of galaxies, made the first discovery of an atmosphere around an exoplanet and helped confirm the age of the universe.

Better science
Two additions to Hubble's science cargo will include the Wide Field Camera 3, a panchromatic camera that is expected to provide sharp images over a wide range of colors; and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph will probe the large-scale structure of the universe, the so-called cosmic web, in which strands of galaxies transect seemingly empty space like a gargantuan 3-D spider web. The universe's invisible "glue," called dark matter and thought to make up about 85 percent of all matter in the universe, gives the web its structure, astronomers say.

Astronomers infer the existence of the cosmic web just as a child might know a Christmas tree exists by looking at the colorful lights that outline its branches. Instead of little bulbs, the stars and galaxies trace out the cosmic web.

In the end, scientists expect to breathe new and improved life into Hubble.

"Our goal for this mission is to leave Hubble at the apex of its scientific capabilities," said David Leckrone, Hubble senior project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The addition of new instruments along with repairs of others should give astronomers a full "toolbox" for resolving many cosmic conundrums, Leckrone said.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Classic Hubble Hits

loading photos...
  1. Happy birthday, Hubble!

    The Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating its 20th birthday and we have some images taken by the iconic space observatory over the past two decades. Arp 148, shown here, is the staggering aftermath of an encounter between two galaxies, resulting in a ring-shaped galaxy and a long-tailed companion. This image is part of a collection of 59 images of merging galaxies taken by Hubble and released on its 18th anniversary. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Swirling merger

    AM 0500-620, located 350 million light-years away from Earth, consists of a highly symmetric spiral galaxy seen nearly face-on and partially backlit by a background galaxy. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Galactic duet

    This Hubble image displays a beautiful pair of interacting spiral galaxies with swirling arms. The smaller of the two, dubbed LEDA 62867 and positioned to the left of the frame, seems to be safe for now, but will probably be swallowed by the larger spiral galaxy, NGC 6786 (to the right) eventually. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spiraling galaxies

    This image shows a Hubble view of Arp 272, a remarkable collision between two spiral galaxies, NGC 6050 and IC 1179. The galaxy cluster is part of the Great Wall of clusters and superclusters, the largest known structure in the Universe. The two spiral galaxies are linked by their swirling arms. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Tail of stars

    NGC 520 is the product of a collision between two disk galaxies that started 300 million years ago. It exemplifies the middle stages of the merging process: the disks of the parent galaxies have merged together, but the nuclei have not yet coalesced. It features an odd-looking tail of stars and a prominent dust lane that runs diagonally across the center of the image and obscures the galaxy. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Galactic merger

    This is the sharpest image yet from the Hubble Space Telescope of the merging Antennae galaxies. As the two galaxies smash together, billions of stars are born, mostly in groups and clusters of stars. The brightest and most compact of these are called super star clusters. (NASA / ESA / STSI via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Starburst galaxy

    This photo of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82) is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of M82, a galaxy remarkable for its webs of shredded clouds and flame-like plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out from its central regions. Located 12 million light-years away, it is also called the "Cigar Galaxy" because of the elongated elliptical shape produced by the tilt of its starry disk relative to our line of sight. (NASA / ESA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Stellar spiral

    This Hubble Space Telescope image released February 28, 2006, shows the spiral galaxy of the Messier 101. It is the largest and most detailed photo of a spiral galaxy that has ever been released from Hubble. (NASA / ESA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A starry night

    This image bears remarkable similarities to the Vincent van Gogh work, "Starry Night" complete with never-before-seen spirals of dust swirling across trillions of kilometres of interstellar space. The Advanced Camera for Surveys is Hubble's latest view of an expanding halo of light around a distant star, named V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon). V838 Mon is located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, placing the star at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy. (NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A brilliant white

    NASA's Hubble Space Telescope trained its eye on one of the universe's most stately and photogenic galaxies, the Sombrero galaxy with the space telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys , in May-June 2003 . The image of the galaxy's hallmark brilliant white, bulbous core is encircled by the thick dust lanes comprising the spiral structure of the galaxy. (NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Glowing dust

    This dramatic image offers a peek inside a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming. The image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope, represents the sharpest view ever taken of this region, called the Orion Nebula. (NASA / ESA / STScI / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pillars of creation

    Columns of cool hydrogen gas in the Eagle Nebula serve as the incubators for new stars - which look like tiny bubbles within the dark pillars. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cosmic comets

    In the left image, the Cartwheel Galaxy looks like a wagon wheel in space. A more detailed image of the galaxy"s hub shows bright, comet-like clouds circling at nearly 700,000 mph. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A nebula's neon colors

    A nebula known as the Cygnus Loop is actually the expanding blast wave from a supernova. The blast has hit a cloud of dense interstellar gas-causing the gas to glow. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Helix Nebula

    Pictured is an image of the Helix Nebula showing tremendous detail of its mysterious gaseous knots. The cometary knots have masses similar to the Earth but have radii typically several times the orbit of Pluto. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ballooning star

    Eta Carinae was the site of a giant outburst observed from Earth about 150 years ago, when it became one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. The star survived the explosion, which produced two billowing clouds of gas and dust. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Clouds of glory

    HH 32 is an excellent example of a "Herbig-Haro object," which is formed when young stars eject jets of material back into interstellar space. The jets plow into the surrounding nebula, producing strong shock waves that heat the gas and cause it to glow in different colors. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Eye of heaven

    This celestial object, with the scientific name MyCn18, looks like an eerie green eye staring out from two intersecting rings. But it's actually an intricately shaped "hourglass" nebula with a star at its center. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Stormy weather

    Temperature differences within interstellar clouds of gas and dust can result in structures reminiscent of Earth's tornadoes. Here are some twisters in the heart of the Lagoon Nebula. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sunny side up

    The small spiral galaxy NGC 7742 is probably powered by a black hole residing in its core. The core of NGC 7742 is the large yellow "yolk" in the center of this fried-egg image. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Feeding a black hole

    A spiral-shaped disk of dust fuels what scientists believe is a black hole near the center of the galaxy NGC 4261. The material heats up and glows as it swirls around the black hole. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Light up the night

    Like lanterns in a cavern, scores of hot stars light up the gaseous walls of the nebula NGC 604. The nebula is a prime area for starbirth in an arm of the spiral galaxy M33. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Supernova circuits

    Three rings of glowing gas encircle the site of supernova 1987A, a star that was seen to explode in 1987. Though the rings appear to intersect, they are probably in three different planes. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Surrealistic Saturn

    A false-color image shows infrared light reflected from the planet Saturn. The different hues help scientists discern different levels of the planet's thick atmosphere. Two of Saturn's moons - Dione and Tethys - are visible as specks on the image. (NASA / AURA / STSCI) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Jupiter's aurora

    A curtain of glowing gas is wrapped around Jupiter's north pole like a lasso in a Hubble Space Telescope image captured in 1998. The curtain of light, called an aurora, is produced when high-energy electrons race along the planet's magnetic field and into the upper atmosphere. The electrons excite atmospheric gases, causing them to glow. A similar aurora crowns Earth's polar regions. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Cosmic Horsehead

    The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most photographed objects in the sky. The Hubble Space Telescope took a close-up look at this heavenly icon, revealing the cloud's intricate structure. This view of the horse's head was released April 24, 2001, to celebrate the observatory's 11th anniversary. Hubble was launched by the shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments