Hubble Repair Mission Approved by NASA

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 31, 2006
Yes, the Hubble Space Telescope will stay in business, at least until 2013.

NASA announced today that the U.S. space agency has found a way to safely service the aging telescope, which is famous for capturing spectacular images of the universe (photos: Hubble's top ten discoveries).

"We are going to add a service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to the shuttle's manifest to be flown before [the space shuttle] retires," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said at an agency-wide meeting at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The mission, likely to come in the spring of 2008, will also allow astronauts to upgrade the "eye in the sky" with new camera equipment.

Without a service mission, Hubble's gyroscopes and batteries will give out by 2010. (How does the space telescope work? Explore our interactive Hubble schematic.)

But the Hubble's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, isn't scheduled for operation until 2013 (read "Hubble Successor Under Way, Will See Even Farther" [June 8, 2004]).

In the intervening years astronomers would have no space telescope to help them study phenomena such as colliding galaxies, black holes, and dark matter.

Craig Wheeler, president of the American Astronomical Society, says repairs and upgrades to Hubble will allow cutting edge space science to continue for years to come.

"Astronomers are not wasting their time on an aging, outmoded instrument doing this," he said. "It's still a first-class astronomical tool."

Safety First

Hubble has been in need of a service call since former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe scrubbed a repair mission following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster (read "U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia, Crew Lost" [February 1, 2003]).

Since then, Congress, scientific panels, and the public have urged NASA to reconsider a service mission and keep the telescope operational.

A sympathetic ear came with Griffin's appointment as NASA chief in 2005.

"Griffin came in with a commitment to and understanding that he had been assigned to repair Hubble if he could do it," said Wheeler, who is also an astronomy professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Safety protocols implemented by NASA after the Columbia tragedy maintain that shuttle astronauts should be able to inspect and repair a shuttle in flight. The protocols also say that there should be a plan for rescuing shuttle astronauts if necessary.

The International Space Station, the destination for all shuttle flights except the Hubble mission, is considered a safe harbor for inspection, repair, and rescue.

But the space station is not an option for a shuttle that heads for Hubble.

Hubble and the space station have very different orbits, so the shuttle would not have enough fuel to change orbit and reach the station in an emergency.

Griffin and his colleagues were therefore forced to determine whether the shuttle could be safely inspected and repaired while in orbit near Hubble.

They also assessed the feasibility of keeping a backup shuttle ready for launch, should it be required for a rescue.

After an exhaustive analysis, NASA concluded that the answer is yes, Griffin announced.

Tests on recent shuttle flights proved the entire spaceship could be properly inspected—and most repairs could be made—in orbit. NASA will also keep a rescue shuttle on the launch pad during the Hubble mission.

"The safety of our crew conducting this mission will be as much as we can possibly do," Griffin said.

"All of you know beyond question, [and] we all as a nation now know, that flying the shuttle carries with it the risk of [loss of] life."

Final Upgrade

The Hubble repair mission announced today will be the fifth and likely last time a space shuttle will fly to the telescope.

Among the tasks to be performed will be the replacement of batteries, gyroscopes, and guidance sensors.

Also, two new instruments will be added to Hubble, greatly increasing its ability to peer deep into space and study the structure of the universe.

Hubble has already provided scientists with unprecedented information about black holes, fixed the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, and helped popularize astronomy with stunning images.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, joined Griffin for today's announcement.

She applauded the agency for reconsidering a service mission to Hubble.

"It's a great day for science, it's a great day for discovery, it's a great day for inspiration," she said. "Because that's one of the things that Hubble has meant to so many people."

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