for National Geographic News
The fifth and final trip by shuttle astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope will leave the historic satellite more capable than it has ever been, senior NASA officials said this week.
A shuttle mission scheduled for mid-October is set to deliver new components and undertake extensive in-space repairsa firston broken instruments attached to the orbiting observatory.
With the phase out of NASA's shuttle program, the trip is almost certainly the last chance for astronauts to tweak and improve the telescope that helped scientists determine the age of the universe13.7 billion years oldand popularized images of deep space.
"If we actually repair the two broken instruments [a camera and spectrograph] , we'll be in a position of having five fully functional instruments for the first time since launch" 18 years ago, said Edward Weiler, who leads NASA's science division.
"We'll have the best Hubble ever, there's no question," Weiler told reporters during a Monday briefing at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland.
(Related story: Hubble Telescope Turns 15 )
The mission is designed to extend the telescope's life by five years. But Weiler said the repairs could keep Hubble working for as many as ten.
Launched in 1990, Hubble was built with handles, foot restraints, and other features to allow astronauts to work on the observatory from space.
Even so, previous servicing missions have involved only installations and removals. The plan to repair a broken camera and a spectrograph tool during next month's space walk is unprecedented, NASA managers said.
The instruments "were not meant to be repaired the way we're doing it," said NASA shuttle astronaut John Grunsfeld, who has visited Hubble twice during five space missions.
At a press conference Tuesday, Grunsfeld joked: "They're sending me back, because I left a critical tool inside the telescope, and I'm the only one who knows where it is."
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