Thursday, May 14, 2009

Live In Orbit: Hubble Has New Eye On Universe

Spacewalking astronauts outfitted the Hubble Space Telescope with a new eye on the universe today -- a next-generation planetary camera that will enable astronomers to reach back to within 600 million years of the Big Bang.

After a fierce struggle to remove its history-making predecessor, Atlantis mission specialists Drew Feustel and John Grunsfeld breezed through the installation of the $126 million Wide Field Camera 3.

The third-generation Wide Field Camera 3 replaces the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.

Known as "the camera that saved Hubble," the old instrument is equipped with small nickel-sized mirrors that corrected for the debilitating flaw discovered on the telescope's primary mirror two months after launch. It was ground to the wrong prescription and all images from the original planetary camera were blurry as a result.

The new camera is expected to improve Hubble's scientific capabilities by up to 30 percent.

"I'm glad (the old camera) decided to come out," said Grunsfeld, an astronomer-turned-astronaut who is making his third trip to Hubble.

"I'm guessing we're not the only ones," Feustel replied.

Hubble project engineers report the new camera passed an aliveness test -- a sign that the instrument is working as advertised.

The astronauts now are putting the old instrument, which was temporarily stowed in the shuttle's cargo bay, back in the enclosed carrier that the new camera was launched within.

Next up for the spacewalkers after that: Installation of a refurbished Science Instrument Control and Data Handling unit. The device will replace a prime unit that failed on the telescope two weeks before a planned launch of Atlantis last October.

A failure of the back-up unit would shut down Hubble science observations, so NASA delayed the Atlantis launch until a replacement could be fielded.

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