The Hubble Space Telescope is about to get a long-awaited makeover, as NASA astronauts head out on a final mission to repair the aging but beloved observatory.
Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off Monday just after 2 p.m. ET. Atlantis is carrying with it 180 special tools — 116 of them designed just for this mission, which involves tricky repairs to two science instruments that were never intended to be fixed in space.
The famous silver telescope hasn't been visited by an astronaut repair crew in more than seven years, and some of its instruments have started failing, diminishing the science it can do.
"I liken this to the situation of a champion athlete who is playing hurt, who has an injury, is playing through the pain, still doing very well, but now, by golly, it's time to go off, get our surgery, and get back to 100 percent," says David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Actually, he says, after this mission, Hubble will be even better than 100 percent: The 19-year-old telescope will be more powerful than it has ever been before.
Astronauts will go on five spacewalks to install new science instruments, repair old ones and replace key items like batteries and gyroscopes.
The Most Devastating Day
This mission to Hubble was originally supposed to have happened back in 2004. But in 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing the astronauts on board.
"We were mourning, but then, beyond mourning, looking ahead, what did that mean for the future of Hubble and our servicing mission?" Leckrone says. "We figured, well, it would cause a two- to three-year postponement, probably."
Instead of a delay, NASA's chief decided that astronauts were never going to Hubble again.
"To be told by Administrator [Sean] O'Keefe that he didn't think it was safe enough to do this mission, and he canceled it, was about the most devastating day I've ever had in my life," Leckrone says.
Without routine maintenance, Hubble slowly breaks down in the harsh environment of space.
Researchers didn't want to lose one of the most famous science instruments ever — one that has transformed their view of the universe. "I don't want to seem arrogant, but I truly believe that a hundred years from now, people will still remember Hubble and what it did," Leckrone says.
The science community spent about a year thinking about a repair robot. That idea got the ax, too. But finally, the next NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, did a careful safety analysis and decided that astronauts could take the space shuttle on this last trip to Hubble.
"The adrenalin is pumping far higher than it should be right now," Leckrone says. "We should be calmer."
The Next Generation Telescopes
If all goes well, the upgrades and repairs should keep Hubble going until at least 2014. After that, if it breaks, there won't be another repair mission, says Edward Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.
He says NASA is getting ready to retire the space shuttle program, so NASA will have no way of getting to Hubble. And the agency isn't building any new spare parts. "Nothing is being built for further servicing, because to spend money on that would mean we wouldn't be able to build the next generation telescopes," Weiler says.
For example, NASA is currently building the James Webb Space Telescope, a large new observatory that is scheduled to launch in 2014 and will orbit about a million miles from Earth.
"As hard as it is for somebody like me who's worked on Hubble for 31 years to say that, you know, 'You've got to let go,' it's time to let go," Weiler says. "Not now. Not three years from now, hopefully not five years from now, maybe seven or eight or nine years from now."
'Hubble Needs A Hug'
NASA has assembled a dream team of astronauts for the Hubble repair. Three of the seven astronauts who will ride on space shuttle Atlantis have come face-to-face with the telescope before. Astrophysicist John Grunsfeld has been to Hubble twice and is glad to be going again. "Hubble needs a hug, and we're ready to go," he says.
He notes that every astronaut who goes to Hubble leaves a mark on the observatory. "Even just putting your hand on the telescope affects the surface coating juts a little bit," he says, "and so you can see handprints and things like that, and so it's clear that people have been working on this telescope."
Another astronaut who will do spacewalks and repair work on this mission, Mike Massimino, says he recently saw a good friend who has worked on the Hubble project for a long time. "He said, 'Make sure, your last time on that telescope, you give it a pat for me,' " Massimino says.
So, he will give Hubble a special goodbye pat on behalf of all the people who have worked with it. "I hope that that's going to be in my mind as I'm letting go of the telescope for the last time, my one last handshake with it," Massimino says.
The astronauts will spend about a week with Hubble. One of their chores will be to attach a kind of ring that a future spacecraft can dock with, to pull the telescope out of orbit when its long and celebrated life finally comes to an end.