NASA delays shuttle Hubble mission

February 4, 2009 6:06:01 PM PST
NASA said Monday it is delaying its mission to the Hubble Space Telescope until next year because of a serious breakdown of the observatory in orbit. Space shuttle Atlantis had been scheduled to blast off in just two weeks, but an unexpected problem with the Hubble appeared on Saturday night when the telescope stopped sending science data.

That potentially means a new repair issue for the astronauts to confront - one that they haven't trained for and never anticipated.

The abrupt, mysterious failure of the command and data-handling system for Hubble's science instruments means that the telescope is unable to capture and beam down the data needed to produce its stunning deep space images.

Early Monday afternoon, NASA announced that the Oct. 14 launch had been postponed until at least early next year, possibly February. Each month's delay will cost the Hubble program about $10 million.

It could have been far worse, said NASA's science chief, Ed Weiler.

"Think about if this failure had occurred two weeks after the servicing mission, we had just put two brand new instruments in and thought we extended the lifetime for five, 10 years and this thing failed after the last shuttle mission to Hubble," Weiler told reporters Monday evening.

"So in some sense, if this had to happen, it couldn't have happened at a better time."

Hubble manager Preston Burch said the first step is to try to fix the telescope by switching to a backup channel for the science instruments' command and data-handling system, and allowing obsee mission by Atlantis and a seven-person crew - whenever it is - will be the fifth and final servicing mission to Hubble.

Weiler said the latest problem is nothing compared with the flawed mirror that left the telescope with blurred vision back in 1990. That trouble was overcome by an astronaut repair team in 1993.

"Hubble has a habit of coming back from adversity, and the Hubble team ... works miracles," Weiler said. "I'm not too concerned about this. We'll find a way to get this fixed. Luckily, we've got a spare."

Now, Endeavour will be the next shuttle up, on a trip to the international space station in mid-November. Endeavour is already at the launch pad; it was supposed to serve as a rescue ship for Atlantis in case of trouble.

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