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Shuttle Astronauts Set to Return After Servicing Hubble Space Telescope

In orbit 350 miles above Earth, astronauts from the shuttle Atlantis continue a series of ambitious and dangerous space walks in which they will replace, and in some cases repair, many of the Hubble Space Telescope's scientific instruments.

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

There's a new telescope in the heavens. It has a familiar name: the Hubble Space Telescope. But this is a new creature altogether.

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Just a few days ago the Hubble had a single major scientific instrument, a 16-year-old camera. It also had an aiming device that freelanced a little bit of science in its spare time. Everything else was kaput. The most advanced camera had been dead for two years, and the spectrograph dead for nearly five.

Now the Hubble has four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments. Plus new batteries. New gyros. A new computer. The upgraded telescope has vision so keen it can peer back through time to when the very first, ungainly galaxies were pulling themselves together. It will study the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. It will look for tendrils of dark matter wriggling through the intergalactic void.

"We have a brand-new observatory with full capability that will be more productive than ever in its scientific lifetime," said Jon Morse, head of astrophysics for NASA.

The Hubble was refurbished and overhauled during five days of difficult, frustrating, ultimately triumphant spacewalks by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. This was the final servicing mission to the Hubble, and it was a "tour de force of tools and human ingenuity," in the words of astronaut John Grunsfeld as he completed the last spacewalk. He and crewmate Andrew Feustel had installed new batteries and guidance systems and replaced old insulation on the exterior of the telescope with new layers of thermal protection.

"The only way of finding the limits of the possible," Grunsfeld said in his valediction, "is by going beyond them, into the impossible."

Atlantis will release Hubble today and is scheduled to return to the Kennedy Space Center on Friday.

Scientists and NASA officials one-upped themselves in praising the astronauts and their support team.

"Other than 'fantastic,' I have no words to describe it," said theoretical astrophysicist Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute. "When you see a miracle happen a few times in a row, you know you have to look for an explanation."

Tenacity, ingenuity, training: These words have popped up again and again in recent days as the astronauts have overcome frozen bolts, stripped screws, stuck handrails. They brought hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of instruments back to life even though the devices were never designed to be repaired in space.

David Leckrone, the Hubble senior project scientist, said yesterday that he could hardly believe how well the mission has gone.

"Do we really deserve this, given all the difficulties we've had? Our guys have refused to accept defeat," he said.


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