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Revived Hubble to have new outlook on the cosmos

The planned overhaul could boost Hubble's imaging power tenfold.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- After taking awesome pictures of the heavens for a decade, the Hubble Space Telescope should expand its already impressive view of the universe thanks to a major midlife makeover.

The orbiting observatory has watched a comet break up near the sun, spied the ruins of a stellar explosion 10 billion light-years away and investigated the rate by which the cosmos expands.

But when the space shuttle Columbia pays a service call the first week of March, the vision of the most powerful visible light space telescope will become even clearer.

A series of planned improvements include installation of the Advanced Camera for Surveys -- a multiple-camera instrument that promises to boost the imaging ability of the bus-sized observatory tenfold.

"If you have two fireflies six feet apart in Tokyo, Hubble's vision with ACS will be so fine that it will be able to tell from Washington that they were two different fireflies instead of one," explained Hubble scientist Holland Ford in a statement.

The phone booth-sized camera upgrade could prove powerful enough to spot planets around other stars, according to Ford, a Johns Hopkins University astronomer who helped design the ACS.

"I think there is a chance," he said. It's going to be difficult, for sure, but we're going to try it."

Hubble view of Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula
Hubble view of Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula  

So far, astronomers have identified dozens of extrasolar planets, but only through indirect means, by observing their gravitational tug on parent stars.

Closer to home, the invigorated Hubble will focus on weather patterns on planets in our solar system.

Other new instruments, such as a filter that blocks out bright light, should allow the observatory to improve its structural studies of massive black holes in the far reaches of the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope, a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency, was launched in 1990. Due to a structural defect, it suffered a serious case of blurred vision until visiting shuttle astronauts made repairs in 1993.

The shuttle Columbia astronauts plan five spacewalks to complete the Hubble upgrades. They are scheduled to install new solar panels, revive a dormant infrared camera and replace one of the gyroscopes that helps steer the satellite.

Their 11-day mission is slated to begin February 28.




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