AP Aerospace Writer CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—The Hubble Space Telescope is about to get one last house call. And never before have the risks been higher.
On Monday, astronauts will rocket away to the most famous telescope of modern times. They'll be taking up new scientific instruments, replacement parts for broken cameras and fresh batteries that should keep Hubble running for five to 10 years.
This cosmic-scale grand finale — stalled seven months by a telescope breakdown — will be NASA's most daring overhaul yet of the 19-year-old orbiting observatory, a captivating, twinkling jewel in the sky representing $10 billion of investment.
Never before have spacewalking astronauts attempted to fix dead science instruments on the Hubble, equipment that was never meant to be handled in orbit. Before they've just swapped out the whole thing at the telescope, which started out life shockingly nearsighted.
In all, five spacewalks will be performed in as many days by two repair teams. Two of the repairmen have visited Hubble before and, because of that, were chosen for this extraordinarily difficult job, on a par with operating-room surgery.
"Hubble needs a hug," said the chief repairman, John Grunsfeld, who will be making his third trip to the telescope.
Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven will face increased danger from space junk because of Hubble's extremely high and littered orbit 350 miles up. They will need someone to come and get them — fast — if their ship sustains serious Columbia-type damage during launch or later in flight. They will not have the luxury of camping out at the international space station while awaiting rescue. The space station will be in another orbit and impossible to reach.
The mission, once canceled because it was considered too perilous, has an unprecedented safety net: another space shuttle on the launch pad. There is no guarantee, though, that NASA could pull off a rescue in time to save the Hubble crew. It would take three to seven days, at least, to launch a second shuttle.
All seven astronauts agree Hubble is worth risking their lives for.
"I'm only going to do that if I think it's for something really important, and I think Hubble is really important," said Grunsfeld, an astronaut-astrophysicist. Hubble is "worth bringing up to date and extending its vision even farther."
"It's showing us the way" to distant galaxies and, indeed, the actual edge of the universe, said the mission's commander, Scott Altman. "The next step is for us to try and go there."
Altman and his crew were just two weeks away from liftoff last fall when Hubble broke down and stopped sending pictures. NASA got the telescope working again with a backup channel on the failed command and data-handing unit, but the shuttle flight took a seven-month hit as engineers scrambled to get an old spare unit ready for launch.
No telescope ever has received as much hoo-ha or been on such a seesaw as Hubble, which has circled Earth more than 100,000 times and logged nearly 3 billion miles.
Launched aboard the space shuttle in 1990, Hubble went "from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the Dead Sea" in two months flat, observed NASA's science chief, Ed Weiler. The orbiting telescope had blurred vision; its primary mirror had been improperly ground.
Astronauts fixed everything in 1993 by installing corrective lenses and returned three more times — in 1997, 1999 and 2002 — to install better cameras and make other improvements.
In the meantime, Hubble was churning out breathtaking vistas of the cosmos, including the celebrated image of Eagle Nebula, a star-forming region 6,500 light years away. The picture is often referred to as "Pillars of Creation."
Hubble has shed light on the age of the universe (13.7 billion years) and shown that the universe may be expanding quicker than ever, and proved the existence of supermassive black holes, among other things. The telescope has peered back in time to within 800 million years of the first moments of the universe. The new instruments going up will take astronomers to within 500 million to 600 million years of creation.