NASA's iconic Hubble Space Telescope is poised to make its long-awaited comeback to observing the cosmos.
After major surgery conducted earlier this year by space shuttle astronauts and a rigorous checkup, Hubble has been pronounced to be in good health and ready for active duty, with its first new images set to be released tomorrow.
The 19-year-old spacecraft, which has wowed astronomers and the public with spectacular images over the years, had several instruments replaced and repaired — including a brand new camera — during a 13-day service call by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
After the astronauts departed, Hubble mission managers began a months-long, rigorous checkout and calibration phase with all of the space telescope's new and repaired instruments. They ran into a few hiccups along the way, with a glitch in the new Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) in July that caused the team to suspend operations for the instrument, and another in the new data-handling unit in mid-June.
"The post [Servicing Mission 4] checkout and calibration activities (we call it SMOV – Servicing Mission Observatory Verification) has gone extremely well," said program manager Preston Burch. "We hit a few bumps along the way (which is no surprise, given the enormous amount of new equipment installed, and its complexity), but we were able to resolve them and stay on our original overall schedule."
The checkout procedures were necessary to make sure the telescope would function properly once it resumed snapping pictures of the universe. Mission managers did take one break to capture an image of a rare event, the comet that struck Jupiter in mid-July and left a dark bruise in the gas giant's roiling atmosphere. That image was taken with the brand new Wide Field Camera 3, which wasn't fully calibrated at the time, but is set to snap more pictures now.
"WFC3 was remarkable for the smoothness of its checkout and calibration," Burch told SPACE.com.
All of Hubble's other systems and instruments have been checked out and look to be in good working order.
"In just about all areas, the new and repaired science instruments meet or exceed their performance specifications, and we believe they will fulfill the expectations of the astronomy community," Burch said.
Scientists and NASA officials would give no hint of what the targets are for the first photos, so Hubble fans will have to wait for Wednesday's mid-day release.