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Starry Success: (Another) Hubble Repair Mission

written by: •edited by: RC Davison•updated: 6/4/2009

The Hubble space telescope is responsible for some of the most fantastic pictures - and startling discoveries - in astronomy. As with any piece of aging equipment, it's in need of some repair. This article outlines some of the replacements and improvements that were done for Hubble in May, 2009.

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    The Hubble space telescope has been one of astronomy's greatest tools since its launch in 1990: due to its orbit around the Earth, Hubble is free of many of the distorting effects of the atmosphere that many land-based telescopes suffer from, allowing for some of the most stunning images ever captured.

    Because of its sheer importance—and popularity of its images with the public—Hubble has been receiving a steady stream of repairs and upgrades since its launch. This has allowed for its continual function, in addition to improvements that have in turn led to deeper and more startling discoveries to be made through its singularly powerful lens.

    This year, Hubble was due for another repair mission—including a few upgrades. NASA's latest mission with the space shuttle Atlantis managed just that. Here's a recap:

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    Hubble from space. Credit: NASAHubble's of the Cat's Eye Nebula. Credit: NASAHubble's image of the Cigar Galaxy. Credit: NASA
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    The Mission: Repairs, Replacements, & Improvements

    This repair mission installed two entirely new instruments, repair two inactive ones, and replace a few parts, all completed over the course of five six-and-a-half hour spacewalks. An overview:

    Replacements included new gyroscopes, which are used to orient the space telescope to aim it at new starscapes, and new batteries, which are used to store energy during the “nighttime” portion of Hubble's orbit in the shadow of the Earth. New insulating blankets have also been added to help protect the delicate equipment, and the old ones brought back for analysis of how to make future insulating blankets all the better.

    New instruments include the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), which will help shed light in dark matter and energy and, being more powerful, replace the WFC2 after one last picture. Also new is the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (CIS), which will increase Hubble's sensitivity in the ultraviolet spectrum.

    But how are all these new things fitting in? A new state-of-the-art circuitry was introduced, the Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, or ACIS, which reduces the size of much of the circuitry inside the Hubble telescope. This allows for more room for all those cool new gadgets.

    Repairs include that of the Advanced Camera For Surveys (ACS), specializing in single sources of light, and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STUS), which specializes in larger starscapes.

    Some of these repairs proved to be a little difficult at times for the astronauts, as thoroughly trained as they were: Hubble's 19 years in space had led to stuck bolts and misfit parts. However, all such obstacles were successfully hurdled: despite the difficulty of the mission, all the repairs, replacements and additions to the Hubble telescope in the end went quite smoothly.

    Hopefully, this will lengthen Hubble's lifespan until at least 2014. After that, no more repair missions are currently planned: this repair mission was officially referred to as the “fifth and final” repair mission to Hubble. The planned replacement telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is currently scheduled for launch in 2014. However, one of the additions to the space telescope was a docking ring—just in case NASA changes its mind.

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    Hubble's image of the Eskimo Nebula. Credit: NASA.Hubble's image of the Orion Nebula. Credit: NASAHubble's image of V838 Monocerotis.
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    The one problem...

    ...was not with the telescope at all. Everything with the Hubble mission went by as smoothly as possible. However, the weather in Florida was stormy enough that Atlantis simply couldn't land there, resulting in it instead landing in sunny California at the Edwards Air Force Base. While this was an expensive redirection, totaling $1.2 million including preparation to fly it back over to JFK Space Center on the back of a modified NASA Boeing 747 later this week, it was entirely necessary given the impossible landing conditions.

    Hubble isn't quite ready to crank out stunning starscapes again, though. Extensive testing of all the new equipment is to follow, just to make sure everything really is in working order. NASA scientists expect it to be ready for its famous pictures again sometime this August.

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    No Rescue Needed

    Somewhat uniquely, there was also a rescue mission ready to launch in case things went wrong—NASA's policy since the Columbia disaster in 2003. The potential danger with this repair mission to the Hubble space telescope was that they were located well away from the International Space Station in a lower orbit. If any damage incurred whatsoever, they would have been helpless in space. While nothing happened—well, it's better safe than sorry. With billions of dollars on the line and the public support not quite what it used to be, NASA was well aware that it couldn't make any more mistakes, and took the appropriate precautions.

    The space shuttle Endeavor was at the ready to launch in case of anything going afoul; since nothing did, Endeavor is simply slated to soon fly its own mission to help construct the International Space Station's Japanese Kibo module...