NASA announced yesterday that STS 125, the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, is slated for launch on May 12, 2009, about seven months later than planned.
For once a mission's postponement has just about everyone smiling. Had everything gone according to the original timetable, astronauts would have visited the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time by now — and a key communication component would have failed soon after they screwed down the last hatch and returned to Earth.
Instead, the extra time has allowed engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to bring a replacement Science Instrument Command and Data Handling System (SIC&DHS) out of mothballs and refurbish it to flight-ready status.
Of course, there'll be far more to do than just replacing the failed data handler. Astronauts expect to conduct five grueling spacewalks with long "to-do" lists during Atlantis's 11-day house call. They'll upgrade a host of systems, swap in new batteries and gyroscopes, install two state-of-the-art instruments and repair a third. They'll even swaddle HST in new reflective blankets to help control its temperature in orbit.
It's like asking your mechanic to tune up your car one final time before you embark on a 800,000,000-mile journey — which is how far the space observatory will go as it circles Earth through 2014, when the history-making telescope's mission will likely end.