May 19, 2009

Atlantis Says Goodbye To Hubble

Space shuttle Atlantis astronauts said goodbye to the Hubble Space Telescope for the final time on Tuesday, as part of an 11-day mission to see the completion of critical upgrades to the veteran observatory.

The crew woke up at 4:31 a.m. EDT Tuesday to the song "Lie in Our Graves" by the Dave Matthews Band. The song was played for crewmember Megan McArthur, who guided the shuttle's robotic arm to lift the telescope out of Atlantis' payload bay to a high point above the shuttle in preparation for its final release into space.

Atlantis grappled Hubble at 6:45 a.m. EDT and prepared the way for Commander Scott Altman to maneuver Atlantis to its proper position so that Hubble could be released.

At 8:57 a.m. EDT Atlantis began separation burn as it began to shift away from Hubble as the seven crew members said their final goodbyes to Hubble.

"Hubble has been released," said Altman. "It's safely back on its journey of exploration as we begin steps to conclude ours. Looking back on this mission, it's been an incredible journey for us as well."

Atlantis fired its thrusters at 9:28 a.m. EDT to increase its distance from the Hubble Space Telescope. Now that the shuttle is at a safe distance from Hubble, the crew will stow the equipment system that provided interfaces between the telescope and Atlantis, according to NASA.

"It's wonderful to see Hubble, the most famous scientific instrument of all time, newly upgraded and ready for action thanks to you," said Mission Control.

NASA reported that late inspection of Atlantis' heat shield would take place at around 12:51 p.m. EDT. The shuttle's high orbit put the crew at an added risk of being struck by orbiting space junk.

Five days of long, tedious spacewalks saw four men working in teams of two give the telescope a much-needed boost in technology.

Contributions to Hubble by the Atlantis crew included the installation of a new camera, a new computer, replacement of batteries as well as the repair of two instruments not designed to be worked on in space.

"This morning, you watch us from the pinnacle of human existence, representing the pinnacle of our craft, and leaving Hubble at the apex of its scientific power," Hubble program officials said in a message to the crew.

"Hubble is now ready to resume its role as humankind's most powerful eyes on the universe."

The STS-125 mission marks the space agency's fifth and final mission to connect with Hubble. After 2020, NASA plans to send a robotic craft to carry the telescope back to Earth where it will rest in the ocean.

"I truly believe this is a very important moment in human history, and I think it's an important moment for science," Hubble project scientist David Leckrone said.

"Just using what Hubble's already done as a starting point, it's unimaginable that we won't dramatically go further than that."

NASA believes the new upgrades will allow Hubble to continue operations for at least five years. Meanwhile, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is under development.

Hubble was launched by shuttle Discovery in 1990, where it was put into an orbit of 304 nautical miles above the Earth.

Shuttle Atlantis is expected to arrive at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 10 a.m. ET Friday.


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