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Facelift for an aging Hubble Shuttle mission: More powerful space telescope can look into more distance galaxies.


A TIME MACHINE. That's another way to describe the Hubble space telescope. This week's successful space shuttle mission included installation of a new instrument, the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, which will extend the Hubble's vision in distance and thus through time. Johns Hopkins astronomers will have much new data to analyze.

The resulting images provided to astronomers will be of objects as they appeared in space millions of years ago. Scientists using these pictures from the past will gain important information about the creation of the universe, distant galaxies, stars forming, comets falling.

Congratulations are due the crew of the space shuttle Discovery, who made the retrieval, repair and upgrading of the Hubble appear routine. They tied the record for space walks in the process, five times leaving the shuttle to perform tasks on the Hubble. With its primary mission accomplished, Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth early tomorrow.

The shuttle astronauts installed a Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, which will enhance astronomers' ability to search for black holes. They also upgraded eight aging Hubble components and patched its torn insulation cover, which suffered from exposure in the extreme heat and cold of space.

It will take about 10 weeks for Goddard scientists to check and calibrate the new instruments. But whether the new spectrometer and spectrograph work won't compare to the drama of the shuttle repair voyage in 1993 after it was discovered that the giant telescope's optical system had a giant vision problem.

The Hubble has been in orbit only since 1990, but much of its technology dates back to the '70s. Routine visits for maintenance and possibly other enhancements are scheduled for 1999 and 2002, unless something unexpected requires an earlier return to the telescope.

After a blurry beginning, corrected by the 1993 mission, the Hubble has more than met original expectations. Its life span, however, even with repairs and upgrades, is finite. With NASA's budget continuing to shrink, it will be interesting to see whether the space agency can retire the Hubble and launch its next-generation orbiting telescope within the next decade.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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