The Hubble Space Telescope is back in orbit after a week of renovation by astronauts aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia. The seven crew-members are now preparing their orbiter for the return to Earth on Tuesday.
After five servicing spacewalks by astronauts, the Hubble telescope was released from Columbia with a powerful new camera and upgraded electrical system that will be thoroughly tested over the next few weeks, before formal observations begin again.
It re-entered orbit the same way it was retrieved one week ago, at the end of the shuttle's robot arm. "It was a happy feeling to see it leave in such good shape," shuttle pilot Duane Carey said. "I just can't wait for the next couple of weeks, when we start seeing images out of that beauty, because, I think, it's going to be spectacular," he said.
The new camera the astronauts installed has twice the field of vision and sharpness, and five times the sensitivity of previous Hubble cameras. The observatory now has the power to see closer to the fringes of the universe, where astronomers will be looking for evidence of the first galaxy and star formation. Hubble managers have said they hope to detect planets around other stars, or at least see the swirling disks of dust around stars, from which planets form.
U.S. space agency astronomer David Leckrone said scientists around the world are so excited about the new camera that they are requesting eight orbits worth of observation time for every orbit available. This is the highest ratio in Hubble's 12 year history.
"After we finish checking out the telescope, the rate of data output from the observatory will be 20 times greater than the original rate of output back in the early 1990s, after Hubble was first launched," Mr. Leckrone said.
Astronauts on this mission also revived Hubble's dormant infrared camera by installing a new refrigerator to cool its sensors to the frigid temperatures required for operation. The renewal will let astronomers resume their examination of heavenly bodies hidden by dust, which their infrared light passes through.
This was the fourth Hubble servicing mission, since the repair visits began nine years ago. The next overhaul is scheduled for two and half years from now. The space agency's director of Space Sciences, Ken Ledbetter, said it will be especially challenging, because it will be the final servicing visit.
"It must prepare the telescope to go six years without further servicing, until the end of its planned 20 year lifetime in the year 2010," he said.
The year before Hubble retires, the U.S. space agency plans to launch a successor, called the Next Generation Space Telescope.