for National Geographic News
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Seven astronauts boarded NASA's space shuttle Atlantis this morning, preparing for the long-awaited final mission to repair and improve the Hubble Space Telescope. The launch is scheduled for 2:01 p.m. ET.
"Outstanding to be here, looking forward to getting off the pad," Mission Commander Scott Altman radioed from the shuttle on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Arguably the most technically ambitious in-space servicing project ever, the 11-day NASA mission includes five planned spacewalks to install new instruments and perform difficult repairs on Hubble, which was launched in 1990.
The current mission is the fifth servicing trip to Hubble and should make the telescope a hundred times more powerful, Hubble director Matt Mountain told ABC News. New batteries should keep the enhanced Hubble active for at least another five years and possibly as many as ten, NASA scientists say.
Today's shuttle launch also marks the start of the first servicing trip to Hubble since 2002. The mission has been delayed numerous times, most recently last October, when a failure of Hubble's ability to send data to Earth prompted scientists to add the repair to the mission's already lengthy to-do list.
Video: Space Shuttle's Final Mission to Hubble
New Killer Apps for Hubble
If the installation goes as planned, a new camera will allow Hubble to probe more deeply into dark matter and dark energy as well as the evolution of galaxies. Dark matter is an almost invisible substance thought to make up almost a quarter of the universe. Dark energy is a mysterious force that astronomers think is causing the expansion of the universe to speed up.
Also, a new spectrograph will reveal more detailed information about the formation of galaxies and stars. Spectrographs measure the light and color wavelengths that come from objects, helping scientists to determine the chemical makeup, temperature, and motion of celestial bodies.
These new instruments are designed to complement the cameras and spectrographs already on Hubble—some of which are in need of serious repair.
In 2007, for example, the main channels broke on the Advanced Camera for Surveys—the camera responsible for some of the most extraordinary Hubble images. The planned fix uses technology originally designed for the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's powerful successor, which is scheduled for launch in 2014.
(See the final "pretty picture" taken by Hubble's "Supercamera.")
Furthermore, the Hubble's current spectrograph, installed in 1997 during the telescope's the second servicing mission, has been down since 2004, when its power supply failed.
To repair it, astronaut Mike Massimo will have to remove more than a hundred screws without letting them fly away into space, where they could potentially damage Hubble.
Innovation on the Fly?
The Hubble repairs will have to be made using scores of tools designed specifically for the mission's precise work in a difficult environment.
The tools must be usable by astronauts wearing thick gloves and be able to endure temperatures variations of up to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit, since Hubble's orbit takes it through direct sunlight and Earth's shadow.
And though Hubble was built with handles, foot restraints, and other external features to allow astronauts to repair it, previous missions have only involved installations and removals.
Hubble was not designed to be repaired in the extensive manner this mission will require, and the team's innovations should aid future astronauts working in space and perhaps even on the moon and Mars.
"That ability to repair in space is something that's going to be critical to us as we move forward in exploration," William Gerstenmaier, a NASA space official, said in a press conference in late 2008. "So we are really learning from the Hubble team."
Hubble has played a key role in many major astronomical breakthroughs of the last two decades.
The space telescope's sophisticated tools have helped scientists determine the approximate age of the universe—13.7 billion years—and of course Hubble's cameras have sent back spectacular images of space.
"Hubble has brought the universe close up and personal to the average citizen," said Edward Weiler, who leads NASA's science division, at the conference. "Its images have become part of our culture."
The new mission aims to continue—and improve on—that legacy.
"We want to leave [Hubble] in better condition than it's ever been before," Commander Altman said at the conference.
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