By the end of the year, the world's greatest telescope should be able to see deeper into space and further back in time than ever.
If all goes as planned, it will detect events closer to the big bang, explore the “cosmic web” of galaxies and intergalactic gas that make up the large-scale structure of the universe, and reveal much more about how and when distant stars and planets were formed.
NASA scientists, engineers and astronauts are finalizing plans to fly the space shuttle this fall on a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to repair and upgrade the orbiting observatory that revolutionized astronomy. The long-delayed servicing mission will be the last for the Hubble, NASA says, but it will allow the telescope to perform at its highest level ever for the remaining five or six years of its operating life.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Hubble and its insights into the evolution of the universe, the presence of mysterious dark matter and dark energy, and the existence of hundreds (and probably many more) of planets orbiting distant stars.
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In a briefing at the Goddard Space Flight Center, scientists said that observations by the telescope have resulted in an average of 12 published discoveries a week for years, and that almost 4,400 principal and co-investigators have produced articles based on its data.
“This is surely the most productive telescope in history,” said Charles Mattias “Matt” Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore.
The upcoming mission, scheduled for early October, will be the fifth to the Hubble, which orbits almost 350 miles above Earth.
This last servicing will deliver two new instruments – the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (which will explore the cosmic web in extreme ultraviolet frequencies) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (which will allow the telescope to “see” across the light spectrum from ultraviolet to optical and infrared).
Over the course of five strenuous spacewalks, astronauts will also work to repair cameras and equipment that have degraded or failed, including the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which produced many of the Hubble's most dramatic images.
Assuming the mission goes off as planned, the first new Hubble data and images are expected by early next year, officials said.