Monday, May 11, 2009

Atlantis Embarks on Historic Final Mission to Hubble

Space shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts blasted off today on a final, daring mission to repair and upgrade the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, hoping to leave the iconic observatory in peak condition for at least five more years.

Atlantis roared from its Kennedy Space Center launch pad at 2:01 p.m., taking nine minutes to climb to orbit and begin a mission that was delayed seven months.

"It's been a long time coming," mission commander Scott Altman told launch managers about nine minutes before liftoff. "Let's launch Atlantis!"

"Enjoy the ride, pal," replied Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach.

Altman was joined on the shuttle by pilot Gregory Johnson and mission specialists Drew Feustel, Mike Good, John Grunsfeld, Mike Massimino and Megan McArthur.

The crew will conduct five spacewalks on consecutive days during the planned 11-day mission.

They'll install two new, state-of-the-art science instruments that could increase Hubble's discovery power 10 to 70 times, helping it look further back in time.

They'll also attempt complex repairs of two more instruments that have broken down since astronauts last visited the school bus-sized observatory in 2002, and replace a critical computer that stores and relays science data.

The computer's failure last fall postponed a planned October launch.

Other tasks packed into the five spacewalks: replacement of the telescope's batteries, gyroscopes and some protective thermal covers.

The fifth mission to service Hubble faces an increased risk of a catastrophic hit from space junk or micrometeoroids because of the telescope's orbit about 350 miles above Earth, which is more than 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.

And the crew won't be able to reach the station if Atlantis sustains serious damage.

Those issues contributed to the mission being cancelled in 2004 because it was considered too dangerous, but it was later reinstated after NASA established unprecedented safety measures.

For the first time, a second shuttle - Endeavour - is standing by on launch pad 39B at the space center, ready to launch a rescue mission if necessary as early as next Monday.

The Atlantis crew will begin inspecting the orbiter's heat shields for damage on Tuesday.

Making its 30th flight, Atlantis is scheduled to land in Florida at 11:41 a.m. May 22.

The mission is the 126th by a shuttle since 1981. It is one of nine missions scheduled before the end of next year, when NASA plans to retire its fleet of three shuttles.

IMAGE NOTE: Shuttle Atlantis and its crew rocket toward orbit after a 2:01 p.m. launch from Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Craig Bailey, Florida Today.

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