NASA is aiming to launch the final space shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope a day earlier than planned to avoid a potential schedule conflict at the Florida launch site, officials said on Thursday.
If approved by U.S. space agency managers next week, the shuttle Atlantis would lift off on May 11 at 2:01 p.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center.
“I feel fairly confident that we can make a May 11 launch date,” Leroy Cain, the deputy space shuttle program manager, told reporters.
The shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts were due to launch last October but the failure of a computer aboard Hubble prompted a delay. The telescope has been using a backup computer to format its science data, and replacement of the failed computer is a key goal of the mission.
Scientists say Hubble, launched in 1990, is an important source of scientific data that has changed their understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe and delivered unprecedented pictures of distant galaxies and celestial phenomena.
Because it orbits about 300 miles above Earth, outside the planet’s atmosphere, its cameras can take extremely sharp images.
The earlier launch date would give NASA three days to try to get Atlantis off the ground before having to postpone until May 22 to allow a previously scheduled U.S. military operation at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to proceed.
The space shuttle shares tracking, safety and other support services with military and commercial users launching from what is known as the Eastern Test Range, which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the military’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The range can support only a single launch, launch dress rehearsal or major test at a time.
The military has the range scheduled for about a week beginning May 14, Cain said, so if the shuttle is not off the pad by May 13, it would be delayed to about May 22.
NASA faces a September 2010 deadline to complete assembly of the International Space Station and retire the shuttle fleet. Atlantis’ visit to the Hubble telescope is the only mission remaining on the shuttle schedule that is not devoted to space station construction or outfitting.
Hubble has been serviced by shuttle crews four times since it was launched.
The Atlantis astronauts plan to conduct five spacewalks to install new cameras, repair other science instruments, replace batteries and gyroscopes and complete other tasks. With the upgrade, Hubble is expected to remain operational until 2014.