Space shuttle Atlantis touched down safely yesterday morning at Edwards Air Force Base in California, wrapping up an ambitious and remarkably successful servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The 13-day mission, likely the last time humans will lay hands on Hubble, came to an end with the orbiter's landing at 11:39 (Eastern Daylight Time). The shuttle was originally scheduled to land Friday, but poor weather in Florida caused NASA to keep Atlantis in orbit until conditions improved and eventually diverted the shuttle to California.
In Hubble's fifth servicing mission, the last one scheduled for the 19-year-old telescope, the shuttle crew successfully replaced several key components, including the sextet of massive batteries that have powered Hubble's night operations since its 1990 launch and a critical data handler that suffered an electronic failure in September. That glitch pushed back the timeline for the servicing mission, which had been set to launch the following month, so a spare could be readied for installation.
The crew also repaired two instruments that had conked out, the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, and installed two new instruments that should provide even more detailed views of the cosmos.
The Atlantis mission, officially dubbed STS-125, was commanded by Scott Altman and piloted by Gregory C. Johnson. Mission specialists Michael Good, Mike Massimino, Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld paired off to work on Hubble in five spacewalks totaling nearly 37 hours, with help from mission specialist Megan McArthur, who controlled the shuttle's robotic arm. In addition to assisting the spacewalkers, McArthur used the robot arm to pluck Hubble from its orbit for servicing and then release the refurbished telescope six days later.
Even with the intensive servicing schedule for Hubble, the astronauts found time to field a call from President Barack Obama, to testify from orbit before the Senate subcommittee for science appropriations, and to offer updates via Twitter on what life in space is all about.
Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas