BY DR EMILY BALDWIN
Posted: 8 May, 2009
Originally scheduled for launch in 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope’s final repair mission, STS-125, is finally go for launch on Monday 11 May at 2.01pm, EDT.
The mission has been beset by delays over the last five years, including the Columbia space shuttle accident and mechanical glitches. “There have been no hiccups this time around and everything is going very smoothly,” says James Green of the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We are right on schedule and the team is optimistic about the launch.”
With vital upgrades and new instruments due to be installed on Hubble next week, astronomers will better understand the physical conditions and evolution of the Universe.
Green is the principal investigator for the $70 million Cosmic Origin Spectrograph (COS) that will be installed during the 11 day mission along with the new Wide Field Camera 3. Hoping to extend Hubble’s life well into the next decade, the astronauts will also install six new stabilising gyroscopes and battery packs, and a new data computer as well as repairing and upgrading various other components of the space telescope, including the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.
“This instrument [COS] is ten times more sensitive than any previous Hubble ultraviolet instruments, so we are looking forward to studying intergalactic space at this distant epoch in detail,” says co-investigator Michael Shull. COS will help scientists better understand the physical conditions and evolution of the early Universe by tracking light from distant quasars, including one that formed five billion years ago, as it shines through the cosmic web of long, narrow filaments of galaxies and intergalactic gas separated by enormous voids. Light absorbed by material in the web will reveal fingerprints of matter, such as hydrogen, helium and heavier elements, allowing scientists to build up a picture of how the gases are distributed and how matter has changed over time as the Universe has aged.
STS-125 mission specialists Andrew Feustel (bottom), John Grunsfeld (centre left), Mike Massimino and Michael Good (centre, right) work with a Hubble Space Telescope mock-up during a spacewalk training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Image: NASA
“Pointing our instrument at hundreds of targets over time will allow us to take a CAT scan of the Universe,” says Shull. As well as quasars, COS will be able to detect young hot stars swathed in the thick dust clouds they formed in, and the gas surrounding the outer planets of the Solar System to glean new clues about planetary evolution. The COS science team have been allotted 552 orbits of observation time on Hubble, the data from which will keep professors, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates busy for years.
The mission will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis. Veteran astronaut Scott Altman will command the mission and retired Navy Capt. Gregory C. Johnson will serve as pilot. Mission specialists are veteran spacewalkers John Grunsfeld and Mike Massimino, and first-time space fliers Andrew Feustel, Michael Good and Megan McArthur. The astronauts will perform five spacewalks over the 11 day mission.