The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis has blasted off to the Hubble Space Telescope for a fifth and final repair mission. Officials with the U.S. space agency NASA hope the costly and complicated repairs will extend the life of the orbiting telescope for at least five more years.
The Atlantis lifted off one minute past 2:00 p.m., U.S. Eastern Daylight time amid sunny skies and thousands of onlookers at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.
The space shuttle will reach the Hubble on Wednesday.
This is the second recent attempt by NASA to repair the aging Hubble. An earlier repair mission planned for last fall was scuttled two weeks before lift-off because of an equipment failure with the space telescope, which has produced spectacular images of the cosmos during its nineteen years in orbit.
Atlantis commander Scott Altman told mission controllers prior to today's launch that he was eager to get the mission underway. "Getting to this point has been challenging but your team, the whole team, everyone has pulled together. We're taking a little piece of all us into space. And all I have to say at this point is let's launch Atlantis," he said.
During the 11-day mission, Atlantis' astronauts will make five space walks during which they will replace aging batteries, gyroscopes and cameras that have been in operation since 1990. They will also attempt to fix two broken science instruments, something that's never been attempted before, and install fresh insulating covers on the outside of the space telescope.
NASA officials have put the price tag for the launch and all of the repairs at $1 billion dollars.
NASA Hubble Telescope program manager Preston Burch says while the mission is demanding he's confident the shuttle's seven astronauts are up to the task of completing all of the necessary repairs. "We have the dream team of shuttle crews working on this mission. They've worked hard. Our team on the ground has worked hard. Our team on the ground has worked hard, and we have very high confidence that this will be a fully successful mission," he said.
During its nearly two decades in space, Hubble has surprised and amazed scientists with numerous discoveries -- including that the Universe is expanding at a faster and faster rate. Astronomers have also learned from the Hubble that galaxies were formed shortly after the Big Bang which created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago.
After the completion of this mission, NASA officials hope Hubble will continue to peer deep into the Universe at least through 2014.