CAPE CANAVERAL, DEC. 4 -- The Astro-1 observatory's finicky telescopes aboard the space shuttle Columbia went on autopilot today after three days of computer troubles, allowing astronomer-astronauts to look into the secrets of the universe, NASA said.
"The observatory is starting to come alive," National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist Ted Gull said after a 15-ton computerized telescope pointing system suddenly started working.
After repeated reprogramming attempts, the system was aiming the telescopes with precision, officials said, and Columbia astronauts were anticipating their first full day of scientific research.
"Steady as a rock is how the crew described the pointing system," said Jack Jones, manager of the $148 million observatory in Columbia's cargo bay.
The observatory has three ultraviolet telescopes and one X-ray telescope designed to analyze electromagnetic emissions from mysterious celestial objects such as gravitational black holes and quasars, the high-energy remnants of ancient star systems scientists believe hold clues to the evolution of the universe.
A pair of binoculars was all the astronauts needed to spot the Soviet space station Mir as the shuttle passed within 33 miles of the Soviet craft.
The two space ships did not communicate, although Mission Commander Vance Brand had tentative plans to make radio contact with the crew later in the mission, NASA said.
Brand was a crewman aboard a historic space rendezvous in 1975 between U.S. and Soviet craft.
Until today, the seven astronauts had been aiming the telescopes manually, NASA said, because precious observing time was being lost.
One of the telescopes was used to produce a spectral image of NGC 4151, an unnamed galaxy in the northern constellation Canes Venatici. Scientists said the image, a graph-like depiction of the electromagnetic emissions from the galaxy, showed a spiral galaxy where new stars were being born.