CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An astronomer aboard the shuttle Columbia apparently saw Halley's comet today but the view was poor because a special image-brightening device failed after being left on by mistake before launch.
George Nelson photographed the comet anyway during the four minutes it was visible on Columbia's 20th orbit of Earth, but he said that without the image intensifier, Halley was difficult to spot 123 million miles away.
'The comet is pretty difficult to find in the window,' he reported. 'I think we got it. We got five different exposures on it. I'm not sure how bright thay are going to be.'
Scientists had told the astronauts to proceed with plans to take pictures of the famous visitor from deep space with longer camera exposure times to salvage as much as possible from the first opportunity to study Halley from orbit as it nears the sun.
Researchers in charge of the operation said the crew should still be able to obtain useful information about the comet, making a once-every-76-years visit to the inner solar system.
The problem with the image intensifier turned up a day after Columbia reached orbit following a record number of launch delays. The intensifier was to make the comet appear up to 100,000 times brighter for photography.
Nelson reported that when he unpacked the intensifier its power switch was on and its batteries were dead. He installed fresh batteries and then looked out a window at the star Sirius.
'I can't seem to get the image intensifier to do anything but give me a degraded image,' he told mission control. 'I can see Sirius in the image intensifier but its brightness is a little less than you see with your naked eye.'
Engineers at mission control Houston were unable to determine the cause of the problem and flight director Jay Greene said the instrument could be broken. He also said it was possible that leaving it off for a while could fix it.
The first study of Halley's comet by scientists in orbit was the highlight of the flight plan today for the seven men making the 24th shuttle mission. They completed their No. 1 objective Sunday by successfully launching a $50 million RCA television satellite, earning NASA $14.2 million.
Columbia's other crewmen are commander Robert 'Hoot' Gibson, co-pilot Charles Bolden, Franklin Chang-Diaz, the first Hispanic-American astronaut, Steven Hawley, RCA engineer Robert Cenker and Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
During a morning pass over Houston, home for the NASA astronauts, Hawley said the view was so clear 'that I think I can give them their morning traffic report on the radio.' He said he saw traffic backed up on several expressways.
Columbia's launch delay from Dec. 18 to Jan. 12 reduced the time available for the Halley photography project, nicknamed CHAMP, to less than four minutes a day because the comet is now so close to the sun, officials said today.
CHAMP, short for Comet Halley Active Monitoring Program, is designed to make observations that cannot be made from ground observatories as the wanderer from deep space speeds toward its close encounter with the sun on Feb. 9.
While unmanned probes from the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and Japan are closing in on the comet for close inspection, Columbia's crew hoped to gather priceless pictures and spectra at a time when history's most famous comet is most active in the heat of the sun.
'In January and early February, the comet will not be observable from the ground,' said Alan Stern, the experiment's principal investigator. 'Literally no one on the surface of the Earth will be able to make observations because the comet is lost in the glare of the sun.
The experiment utilizes a 35mm Nikon camera and the image intensifier. The system was tested last April aboard the shuttle Discovery and its use aboard Columbia kicks off a three-flight $65,000 series of observations.
Other experiments aboard the shuttle range from studies of new ways to store blood to analyzing the effects of weightlessness on gypsy moths and dog ticks to find new ways of interrupting their life cycles to control the pests.
Landing is scheduled for Friday back at the Kennedy Space Center.
The astronauts got off to a spectacular if delayed start at 6:55 a.m. EST Sunday and so far, Columbia, which has been in dry dock the past two years for major modifications, has performed well with only minor problems.