May 12, 2009

Atlantis Spends Busy First Day In Orbit

Crewmembers of space shuttle Atlantis began inspection of the craft's heat shield as they made their way toward the Hubble Space Telescope during their first full day in orbit.

After a successful launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1401 EDT Monday, members of the STS-125 crew began the inspection using the shuttle's robotic arm and a sensor that will determine if the craft's wings or nose took any damage while coming into orbit.

NASA said the data from the heat shield survey would be sent to shuttle imagery experts in Mission Control, Houston.

Meanwhile, the seven astronauts aboard Atlantis are preparing for their rendezvous with Hubble on Wednesday in what will be the space agency's fifth and final maintenance mission.

Over the course of five spacewalks, Atlantis crewmembers will install two new instruments, repair two inactive ones and perform the component replacements that will keep the telescope functioning into at least 2014.

NASA will install the so-called Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which will observe the light put out by extremely faint, far-away quasars and see how that light changes as it passes through the intervening gas between distant galaxies.

The mission will also see the installation of the new Wide Field Camera 3, which will equip Hubble to take massive, detailed pictures over a wide array of colors.

The upgrades to Hubble are intended to keep the telescope functioning into at least 2014.

Since its launch in by shuttle Discovery in 1990, Hubble has orbited the Earth 97,000 times and provided more than 4,000 astronomers with unprecedented access to the stars.

"We've actually seen an object that emitted its light about 13 billion years ago," said Hubble project scientist David Leckrone. "Since the universe is 13.7 billion years old, that's its infancy, the nursery. From the nearest parts of our solar system to further back in time than anyone has ever looked before, we've taken ordinary citizens on a voyage through the universe."

"Hubble has a long history of providing outstanding science and beautiful pictures," Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the US space agency's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

"If the servicing mission is successful, it will give us a telescope that will continue to astound both scientists and the public for many years to come."

The STS-125 crew faces a more daunting mission than previous maintenance missions to Hubble because it has been seven years since the last time upgrades were made. Atlantis marks the first repair mission to Hubble planned since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

The Columbia event caused NASA to delay critical upgrade missions to Hubble while the agency developed plans for using the International Space Station as an emergency shelter for astronauts in case the shuttle is too damaged to return to Earth.

However, Atlantis' intended mission will take it far out of reach of the ISS, so NASA has put together a second shuttle mission, called Endeavor, that would be launched in the case of an emergency.

"Our workload is going to be very high," lead spacewalker John Grunsfeld told BBC News on Sunday.

"It's going to be a marathon at a sprint pace for 11 days on orbit."

Space veteran Mike Massimino was among the seven astronauts to leave Kennedy Space Center on Monday. He will be using the popular micro-blogging tool Twitter to keep followers up to date on the mission.

Massimino began giving Twitter updates at Twitter.com/Astro_Mike during mission training in April in Houston. He now has more than 221,000 followers.


Image Caption: A camera aboard space shuttle Atlantis captured this image of the payload bay as the shuttle soared over the Earth. Photo credit: NASA TV


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