NASA to Keep Ailing Hubble Alive

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin announced yesterday (10.31.06) that Shuttle astronauts will make one final house-call to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) as part of a mission to extend and improve the observatory’s capabilities through the year 2013. This decision was not taken lightly – missions to Hubble preclude use of the ISS as a “life raft” for Shuttle astronauts in the event of emergency, but the risk was deemed low enough that the go-ahead for this Hubble repair mission was given. Indeed, the HST was deemed by a panel of astronomers to have “arguably had a greater impact on astronomy than any instrument since the original astronomical telescope of Galileo.”

Besides replacing some of the gyroscopes and batteries, the new Hubble service crew will install two new instruments aboard the space observatory – the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). COS is the most sensitive ultraviolet spectrograph ever flown on Hubble. The instrument will probe the cosmic web, the large-scale structure of the universe whose form is determined by the gravity of dark matter and is traced by the spatial distribution of galaxies and intergalactic gas. WFC3 is a new camera, sensitive across a wide range of wavelengths (colors), including infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. It will have a broad inquiry, from the planets in our solar system to early and distant galaxies beyond Hubble’s current reach, to nearby galaxies, with stories to tell about their star formation histories.

Other plans include replacement of one of three onboard Fine Guidance Sensors that control the telescope’s pointing system as well as repair of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph used for high resolution studies in visible and UV light of both nearby and distant galaxies, providing information about the motions and chemical makeup of stars, planetary atmospheres, and other galaxies.

Since its launch in 1990 (and in particular after its vital servicing in 1993), Hubble supplied scientists with important discoveries and insights about our universe as well as magnificent images that enraptured millions all over the world. Extending Hubble’s mission will allow astronomers to continue their research while awaiting the launch of its successor – the James Webb Space Telescope – around 2013.

More information about the refurbishment of the HST is available on NASA’s website.