GREENBELT - In about two weeks, some 24,000 pounds of what may be the most thoroughly-tested and closely-inspected hardware on earth will be packed into custom crates, mounted on flatbed trucks and shipped as "wide load" cargo to Cape Canaveral, Fla.
When it arrives, the one-of-a kind camera and spectrograph, now being stored at the Goddard Space Flight Center, will be inspected once more, loaded on to the space shuttle Atlantis and launched into orbit 350 miles above the earth. There, astronauts will rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope for a long-delayed, 11-day servicing mission.
The $900 million effort, scheduled for launch Oct. 8, will be the last of five Hubble servicing missions, and engineers and scientists here have great hopes for the upgrade to one of the world's best known scientific instruments.
"I think it will put Hubble at the apex of its capabilities," David Lechrone, senior project scientist for Hubble, told reporters at a press briefing yesterday.
Lechrone and other NASA scientists are gearing up for the launch at NASA Goddard, which manages Hubble's day to day operations. Scientific operations are based at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the John Hopkins University campus in Baltimore.
Scientists at Goddard are testing sensitive scientific equipment in an acoustic chamber to make sure that what goes into space can withstand the violent shaking that characterizes every shuttle launch and the eight-minute ride into orbit.
Engineers are testing containers with weights and cranes to make sure they won't fall apart under stress and reviewing a wide range of contingency plans for scaling back on the space walks and repairs to Hubble if there are equipment failures.
"We've been getting ready for this since August of last year, trying to think up every possible scenario," said Keith Walyus, Hubble mission operations manager.
The activity appeared to be nonstop yesterday in the space flight center's "clean room," a cavernous, sealed-up hall with a ceiling 90-feet high and air that's filtered and recirculated every 90 seconds.
At any moment, as many as 42 engineers, scientists and astronauts - wearing sanitary white "bunny suits," surgical masks, booties and caps - were visible from an observation window, huddled over equipment bound for space.
Near the center of the room, engineers put finishing touches on the truck-size container that will carry equipment aboard the shuttle, while another group tended to the IMAX camera that will be mounted on the shuttle.
A large-screen film of the mission is expected to be released in 2010.
In one corner, the four astronauts who will walk in space to service Hubble, easy to spot because of their blue surgical caps, were checking out their dexterity with the tools they'll use to make repairs.
NASA likes to boast that the clean room, the largest of its kind in the world, is 1,000 times more sanitary than the typical hospital operating room.
Such sterile conditions are a necessity with state-of- the-art space optics, which can be damaged by a particle the width of a human hair.
"We don't want any surprises when we go into orbit," said Russ Werneth, a Hubble outreach coordinator at Goddard.
In a series of five spacewalks, astronauts will give the Hubble a new set of gyroscopes to stabilize the telescope and install both a thermal blanket to protect internal workings from the extreme temperatures of space and a new set of batteries to extend its lifespan to 2013.
Astronauts also will repair the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, a scientifc mainstay that has produced many of the striking images that adorn science classroom walls and computers screens around the world.
Astronauts also will install a new wide-field camera to study dark energy and a cosmic origins spectrograph that will examine the large scale structure of the universe.
The servicing mission was initially canceled in 2004 after the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003. But under pressure from scientists, politicians and the public - and the resumption of shuttle flights to the International Space Station - NASA eventually reversed itself on Hubble.
Left on its own, the telescope would probably only last another couple of years, said Preston Burch, Hubble's program manager.
"Without the mission, it's hard to really say what the future of Hubble would be," he said.
Up to 8,800 scientists have used the archive of data Hubble has produced, and astronomers worldwide have written 7,724 scientific papers based on Hubble findings since its launch in 1990. The telescope is still responsible for about 12 discoveries a week, Leckrone said.
"It's simply the most productive telescope in history," added Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees Hubble's scientific operations.
Together, the improvements should give Hubble unprecedented capabilities to shed light on how galaxies form, how stars are born and die, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy and the architecture of the universe itself, NASA says.
But the most significant achievements might be ones that are completely unexpected and impossible to predict, Lechrone said.
"We're going to stumble on the unexpected, as we always traditionally have," Lechrone said.