It may be at least 18 months away, but the main focus of space mission attention is already being placed on the 2008 flagship shuttle flight of STS-125, which will see Atlantis and her crew carry out the final servicing mission on the Hubble Space Telescope.
A science-based overview of the instruments that will be upgraded on the telescope, given by Professor Gerry Gilmore of Cambridge University, noted the importance of the observations Hubble will carry out over the final five years of its lifetime.
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Currently NET (No Earlier Than) September 11, Atlantis – recently handed the role of finishing her lifetime as an operation spacecraft, exclusively revealed by this site – will conduct the final shuttle mission to the telescope, and more than likely the last visit by a space vehicle before Hubble is deorbited in the first half of the next decade.
‘This is service mission four, the fourth attempt to fix it (fifth overall), basically. It’s an old telescope, it’s starting to fall apart and they are going to replace all the worn out components – the gyros the batteries, stuff like that,’ said Professor Gilmore on the long-running BBC program The Sky At Night. ‘But most importantly, they are going to put in two new state of the art instruments.
‘They will attempt to repair one of the broken instruments, which has lost its power supply – the space telescope imaging spectrograph, and they’ll put in two new ones, a new camera and a new spectrograph.’
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For the mission, Atlantis will carry 22,000 pounds of hardware to the aging telescope, with four spacewalks (EVAs) required during the 11 day mission.
‘First of all, the new camera. This is an upgrade to the existing famous wide field camera – the one that takes all those gorgeous pictures we see all the time – and this is basically just using newer detectors,’ added Professor Gilmore.
‘The key feature is that they’ll more sensitive in the ultra violet and more sensitive in the infra red, so we’ll have a wider range of colours. The key here is that in the ultra violet we’ll be able to look at hot stars and young stars and galaxies as they are forming in the local universe, and then compare that with what we see in the infrared – and that’s the challenge, to find out if young galaxies long ago look like young galaxies today.’
One EVA in particular will be highlighted by the replacement of an electronics board inside the Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which requires 111 screws being removed in the space of 45 minutes.
‘The other instrument is the new spectrograph, and that’s used to observe what’s between the galaxies. The galaxies as we know them have all the stars in them, but most of the atoms in the universe are actually between the galaxies and are spread out in a filament-like structure – sometimes referred to as the cosmic web – and we can see this only through the way it absorbs light and background objects.
‘So the new spectrograph – the cosmic origin spectrograph – is really designed to observe point sources, quasars, very high red shifts indeed, but to use them as background light sources, and to look at the way the light from those quasars is absorbed by all the gas along the line of sight to map out all the filaments and structure.
‘So the understanding there is to map out the large scale structure of the universe and to how the universe got to its current shape and structure.’
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Atlantis will also carry a passive LIDS (Low Impact Docking System) in her cargo bay, to be attached to Hubble’s aft bulkhead. The requirement is to provide a capability to enable a future spacecraft to perform an autonomous rendezvous and docking with Hubble.
While this system can be used for another servicing mission via Orion, Professor Gilmore believes it will almost certainly be used to deorbit Hubble.
‘One of the other things they are putting on Hubble this time is a guaranteed death certificate,’ he noted. ‘They are going to add a little hook on to the back of it, so that when it comes to the end of its life in about five years time – which will see Hubble overlap the James Webb Space Telescope’s orbital debut – they’ll be able to send a robot up, grab hold of this hook and flip it into the ocean.’
Questioned on the possibility of raising Hubble’s orbit to leave the telescope in a mothballed state, Professor Gilmore isn’t hopeful.
‘At present it’s right at the limit of what the shuttles can do, but of course there won’t be any shuttles by the time Hubble comes to the end of its life, as they will have retired by then’ added the professor. ‘So it’s just part of the natural evolution of technology, in the same way the cameras are much more evolved than they were 10 years ago.
‘Sadly all good things come to an end.’
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