Image: Hubble Space Telescope
NASA via AFP - Getty Images file
NASA has decided it will make one last service call to the Hubble Space Telescope. The launch is tentatively scheduled for August 2008.
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updated 7/1/2008 7:03:17 PM ET 2008-07-01T23:03:17

Scientists are eagerly awaiting a much-needed facelift planned for the world's favorite space telescope.

This fall, NASA astronauts plan to take a final space shuttle trip to fix the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

Set to fly Oct. 8 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the mission will carry seven astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis to upgrade the 18-year-old Hubble. Ground crews at Kennedy Space Center are hard at work on repairs to Launch Pad 39A, which suffered damage during the shuttle Discovery's liftoff on May 31. The work is expected to be finished in time for Atlantis' launch.

"Hubble's been flying for over 18 years, and although it's old, there's still a lot of great science left in this telescope," Preston Burch, Hubble program manager, said at a briefing Tuesday at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We believe that [this mission] is going to enable us to finally unleash the full potential of the Hubble Space Telescope."

The STS-125 mission will be the fifth trip to repair the orbiting telescope, which has been circling Earth about every 97 minutes since it launched in April 1990. The planned 11-day mission is slated to install new equipment and repair broken instruments during five spacewalks.

New additions
Atlantis is scheduled to deliver the Wide Field Camera 3, which was designed to image the distant universe in a broad range of wavelengths, from near ultraviolet light through optical light and into the near infrared. It will be particularly adept at studying some of the oldest, most distant galaxies in the universe, whose light has been redshifted to the infrared range.

"We have no idea what the universe looks like at these very high redshifts," said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. "Our first hint will come from Wide Field Camera 3."

The mission is also due to bring Hubble the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, an instrument that can break up light into its constituent colors to reveal the chemical makeup and other fundamental properties of heavenly objects.

In addition to the new scientific instruments, Atlantis is set to deliver a set of six new and improved gyroscopes, which help stabilize the telescope, to replace its old six, three of which are broken. The shuttle mission is also slated to repair some broken instruments aboard the observatory, and bring new batteries and thermal blankets that should help the telescope operate until at least 2013.

The crew is also planning to install a docking port called a Soft Capture Mechanism to the observatory. When the telescope is ready to be retired, a future unmanned spacecraft could attach to this device to steer Hubble on a controlled dive down to its demise.

New and improved
NASA hopes the upcoming upgrades will help Hubble have a healthy life for a while yet. To that end, they've planned a packed mission to leave the telescope in the best shape possible.

The numerous activities scheduled for the five busy spacewalking days will be a challenging undertaking, mission managers said.

"Even if we just get one day [of spacewalking repairs] in, we'd have a much better telescope than we have now," said Keith Walyus, operations manager for the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. "If we get all this done — wow, that's going to be absolutely amazing."

The mission has had a rocky history. Originally cancelled in the wake of the Columbia disaster in 2003, for a while NASA deemed it too risky and expensive a venture.

NASA considered sending a robotic repair mission to Hubble instead, but eventually decided a manned mission was the only way to accomplish what needed to be done.

"The technology they were looking at is amazing," Walyus said of the proposed robotic fixes, "but it's just not the same as a human. This was built to be worked on by humans."

Ultimately the strong public and political support for the mission helped influence NASA to decide to return to the space telescope one last time.

"The American people stood up and said wait a minute, not so fast, this is our telescope," David Leckrone, Hubble senior project scientist at Goddard, said of the response to the mission's cancellation.

Beloved by many
The telescope achieves its amazing feats by orbiting 360 miles (575 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth. From that height, Hubble can bypass our planet's thick atmosphere, which blocks out light and distorts the view from space — an effect akin to looking at trees from the bottom of a swimming pool.

While Hubble's 94.5-inch-wide (2.4-meter-wide primary mirror would be considered dinky compared with the largest ground-based observatories (the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, has two scopes with 10-meter, or 400-inch, primary mirrors), in space it is enough to observe the distant cosmos in unmatched detail.

These visions have produced not only groundbreaking scientific discoveries, but also unprecedented enthusiasm from nonscientists.

"When the public saw for the first time the absolute stunning beauty of the universe we live in, that was a major shift in the way people looked at the world," Leckrone said. "I think there's a big element of pride on the part of the American people in having produced Hubble and used it in this way. I think as a species we all take collective pride in, hey, this is something we did, and it was something very hard to do."

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Photos: Classic Hubble Hits

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  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
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