November 22, 2019

Update: the Final Hubble Servicing Mission.

Mark your calendars; NASA is set to fly one final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope! First launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope forever altered our view of the heavens.

After a rocky start, Hubble has created the images that will forever define what has become a Golden Age of Astronomy.

Three servicing missions have kept Hubble in service; it is in desperate need of another. Hubble is one gyroscope failure away from permanent shut down. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA put new restrictions on the Shuttle; one of which is that it had to be able to reach the International Space Station, especially in the event that it would be unable to re-enter. That left travel to the HST out. The telescope orbits at a different inclination and altitude than the ISS, at 28.5 degrees and 320 nautical miles, respectively. This is right at the edge of shuttle operational capability. The shuttle Atlantis will fly this crucial mission, designated STS-125 and slated for an October 8th launch. While in orbit on an 11 day mission, the seven person crew will perform 5 spacewalks to repair and upgrade the Hubble one final time. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is not scheduled for launch until 2013 and will not be parked in low Earth orbit, hence unreachable for repair. Also, a second shuttle, Endeavour, will be on standby to rescue the Atlantis crew in the event that they cannot re-enter. The usual roll over inspection will instead be performed by the crew by means of a camera on the robotic arm.

While on the final servicing mission, the crew will install some new equipment as well. One is the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which will examine distant light sources such as Quasars and ancient galaxies to tell us something about the gases in inter-galactic space. Also the Wide Field Camera 3 will compliment the Advanced Camera for Surveys as the new wide angle work horse. The WFC3 will be able to hit light frequencies that the ACS can’t, enhancing capability.

Several of the more challenging repairs carried out will involve intricate surgery, not just the swapping of boxes. Some of the equipment such as the ACS and the Imaging Spectrograph were never intended to be repaired in space. Still, such techniques may be necessary for long duration trips to places like Mars, and astronauts are eager to try them out.

Should we go to Hubble? As Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 demonstrated, it’s handy to have a keen set of eyes in orbit; one never knows what may come up! Imagine if a comet were headed towards Earth instead of Jupiter; we’d definitely want to take a closer look! Loss of Hubble would also give us a years long gap until the James Webb was up and running, and a definite loss of capability. Finally, the Astronauts and the public proved to NASA that they wanted this. In our safety over-engineered society, there needs to be a bit of calculated adventure to get the juices flowing!

NASA plans to have briefings covering STS-125 on September 8th and 9th, Astroguyz will be watching via NASA TV as well as Mission coverage itself. The shuttle itself is slated for retirement in 2010, with only 10 remaining missions funded! We’ll update you as this dramatic repair call unfolds!

 

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