Shuttle mission to continue another day
NASA studying problem with cooling system
HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- NASA is "a lot more optimistic" that space shuttle Columbia will be able to continue its mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, despite a problem with one of the shuttle's two cooling systems, a spokesman said Friday night.
"We are not in a case where we will have to come home early at this time," Mission Program Manager Ron Dittemore said.
"Our initial looks at the system show it to be stable even with the degradation, and we believe we are safe to continue on for the next 24 hours while we continue to look at other information and refine our analysis," he said.
The problem was noticed shortly after Columbia blasted off Friday. The shuttle is equipped with two fully redundant Freon cooling systems, but NASA flight rules dictate that the shuttle must return home as soon as possible if one fails.
In this case, the cooling system in question is not completely broken, but contaminated -- which caused the air filter to clog, which has limited its capability.
The cooling system is crucial for the shuttle's re-entry into the atmosphere, when temperatures reach more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mission managers had promised the shuttle crew they would get some guidance before their bedtime of 9:40 p.m. EST. The soonest Columbia would have been able to return to Earth would be around 8:30 a.m. EST Saturday at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
This is not the first time a problem has threatened to terminate a shuttle mission. Several years ago, a fuel cell aboard Columbia died right after the craft went into orbit: The shuttle returned to Earth three days later.
First launched in 1981, Columbia is the oldest of the four shuttles in the fleet. The spacecraft just had a $164 million renovation, and it is carrying seven astronauts on a trip to perform a broad-ranging renovation of the 12-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.
Hubble Telescope tune-up
Columbia is carrying $172 million in new equipment for the space telescope, including new solar wings, a power-control unit, a steering mechanism, a more advanced camera and a system to restart a disabled infrared camera.
The mission called for the astronauts installing the new equipment in five spacewalks over the 11-day mission, which includes repairs never meant to take place in orbit: replacement of a power-control unit and Hubble's infrared camera repair.
NASA scientists are particularly nervous about the power-control unit repair because the power to the space telescope must be shut off and restarted -- a sequence never before performed on the telescope.
Temperatures at launch time were in the upper 40s just before dawn Friday, warmer than Thursday's upper 30s that prompted NASA to postpone launch for a day.
Hubble to get new view of cosmos
After taking awesome pictures of the heavens for a decade, the Hubble Space Telescope will expand its already impressive view of the universe if the Columbia's crew conducts a major midlife makeover for the Hubble.
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 that the cosmos expands.
With five planned spacewalks by Columbia astronauts, the most powerful visible light space telescope would have an even better view of the heavens.
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."
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.
This mission also marks a return to orbit for Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle. Columbia's maiden flight was in April 1981. The shuttle flew 25 missions before undergoing a major overhaul following its last flight in November 1999.
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