Space shuttle Endeavour's record-long stargazing flight was extended to at least 16 1/2 days because of stormy weather at the landing site yesterday.
The delay, after more than two weeks of round-the-clock work with a $200 million set of ultraviolet telescopes, left the crew a full day to rest and look out the window.
The telescopes had already been packed away for the ride home Thursday night, just after scientists on the ground had a little fun with the crew.
As they were preparing to shut down their equipment, Endeavour astronauts saw something strange on the TV monitor that displays what the telescopes are seeing.
It was a flying saucer.
"Are you seeing this on the ground?" one of them radioed back to the Johns Hopkins University science team at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
They were. In fact, the little saucer -- which delivered a message that read, "See ya," -- was created on a computer screen at Marshall by a Hopkins scientist and electronically superimposed over the stars on the shuttle's monitor.
"It was a neat way to wrap things up," said Dr. Bill Blair, an associate research professor at Hopkins and deputy project scientist for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope.
In addition to the Hopkins instrument, the shuttle also carried the Maryland-built Goddard Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope and the Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photo-Polarimeter Experiment.
Dr. Samuel T. Durrance, of Lutherville, a Hopkins astrogeophysicist; and Dr. Ronald A. Parise, of Silver Spring, an astronomer with Computer Sciences Corp., a NASA contractor, were among the crew of seven.
By all accounts the mission -- the longest in shuttle history -- was enormously successful. "We've got more years of data to look through than money to support it," Dr. Blair said.
Astronomers targeted nearly 300 quasars, galaxies, stars, planets and moons.
Dr. Blair said HUT scientists captured "excellent data" on every one of the 20 scientific programs planned for the flight.
Astro 2 gathered five times as much raw data as the nine-day Astro 1 mission in December 1990, which was hobbled by problems with the telescope pointing systems.
Sensitivity improvements since 1990 should improve the quality of that data even more, Dr. Blair said.
Still unknown is whether Astro 2 accomplished its primary scientific goal -- the discovery of diffuse helium and hydrogen in the reaches of space between the galaxies.
Theorizers believe the gases should be there, remnants of the first elements formed after the Big Bang that marked the beginning of all time, space and matter in the universe.
Confirmation would support the Big Bang theory, and provide a partial answer to scientists searching for the elusive "dark matter" which is thought to comprise most of the mass in the universe.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Dr. Arthur Davidsen, principal investigator on the HUT project, said he believes Astro 2 has gathered the raw data necessary to find the helium if it is there.