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NASA clears shuttle for trip to telescope

NASA managers have cleared space shuttle Atlantis for a launch schedule today on a final mission to refurbish the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, officials said over the weekend.

Lift-off is scheduled for 1801GMT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Meteorologists predicted an 80 percent chance the weather would be suitable for launch.

NASA has dispatched shuttle crews four times to repair and upgrade the telescope, which was launched in 1990 with the expectation that it would operate for 10 to 15 years.

"To say we got our money's worth out of Hubble is an understatement," NASA's associate administrator, Ed Weiler, said during a recent news conference previewing the mission.

Hubble has been instrumental in reshaping scientists' understanding of the universe and how it operates. Its discoveries include evidence that space is expanding at an increasingly faster rate and that the process for making planets is very common.

The seven-member Atlantis crew is scheduled to make five back-to-back spacewalks to fix broken equipment on Hubble, install two new science instruments and replace the telescope's gyroscopes, batteries and other gear.

The upgrades should keep Hubble operating for at least five more years, by which time its replacement, the infrared-sensitive James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to be in orbit.

NASA on Saturday also reviewed launch preparations for shuttle Endeavour, which is poised on a second launch pad in case the Atlantis crew needs to be rescued.

Since the 2003 Columbia disaster, astronauts have been able to seek shelter aboard the International Space Station if their ship was too damaged to fly back through the atmosphere.

Columbia was destroyed as it prepared for landing as a result of a hole in its heat shield caused by a piece of falling foam insulation during liftoff. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.

Hubble orbits too far from the station for the Atlantis crew to get to in case of an emergency, so NASA came up with a plan to have a second shuttle ready to launch on a rescue mission if needed.

The Atlantis astronauts will inspect their ship for damage once they reach orbit.


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