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Space telescope successfully launched

By
WILLIAM HARWOOD UPI Science Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The Discovery astronauts safely launched the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope Wednesday after last-ditch commands from Earth freed a balky solar panel, narrowly averting an emergency spacewalk.

Astronaut Steven Hawley, operating Discovery's fragile 50-foot robot arm, released the 12-ton space telescope into a record 381-mile-high orbit above the Pacific Ocean just west of Ecuador at 3:38 p.m. EDT, kicking off a 15-year quest to wrest the secrets of creation from the depths of space and time.

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'The telescope really looked great as we flew away from it and we all were remarking about we sure hope it does good work,' shuttle skipper Loren Shriver told elated ground controllers.

'Well it sure is now, Loren,' replied astronaut Story Musgrave from mission control in Houston. 'Thanks for all the great work you've done. Galileo is real proud of you.'

Astronauts Kathryn Sullivan and Bruce McCandless, wearing bulky white spacesuits, were inside Discovery's airlock at the time of the deployment, poised for an emergency spacewalk to manually crank open a solar panel on the telescope if so ordered.

But engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., decided the problem rested with a protective circuit that apparently was sensing too much tension on the solar panel's wings, repeatedly stopping the array from unwinding from its canister.

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The circuit was turned off and a third and final set of commands to the telescope succeeded in getting the second of the two European-built solar panels unfurled and in operation after a 'stressful' period of troubleshooting, said telescope engineer Mike Harrington.

A few minutes later, the 12-ton space telescope, the most expensive satellite ever built, was released into space, about an hour and 40 minutes later than planned, averting an emergency spacewalk.

'We came very close today,' Musgrave radioed Sullivan and McCandless.

'Close, but no cigar,' Sullivan said from Discovery's airlock. 'But better for the Hubble that it went the way it did.'

Flight director William Reeves said later that the two astronauts 'were probably 30 minutes away from being out in the payload bay with tools in hand ready to start their (repair) task' had the commands from Goddard failed.

The next major milestone in the observatory's activation will come Friday when engineers radio commands to open a protective door on the end of the telescope's tube, allowing light to fall on its 7.9-foot mirror for the first time. Until then, Discovery's crew will be on call in the event of problems.

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NASA officials were elated with the deployment of the first of four major space observatories design to study the cosmos in a variety of wavelengths.

'The fun has hardly begun yet,' said NASA Administrator Richard Truly, who watched the launch from Goddard. 'Because just within a few days and weeks and months she'll begin to return science back to Earth. And it should really be exciting. I think it's a great and historic day for the space program.

Floating free in space with both solar panels drawing life-giving power from the sun, the Hubble Space Telescope's computers immediately began orienting the instrument to keep it pointed well away from the sun as Shriver carefully backed Discovery away.

'It's great to see it released from the shuttle,' said NASA astronomer Edward Weiler. 'I think we're in great shape now.'

Shriver, co-pilot Charles Bolden, Sullivan, McCandless and Hawley planned to remain close by aboard Discovery in case more problems required a rendezvous and a repair attempt.

The telescope's launch was was a triumphant moment for hundreds of scientists and engineers who in many cases have devoted their professional careers to a project running seven years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget.

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But with the telescope finally in its element and operating properly, the project's tortured history took a back seat to the joy of the moment, the dawning of a new era in humanity's age-old search for clues about the creation, evolution and fate of the universe.

The first image from the telescope, a focussing test photo of a nondescript star cluster known as NGC 3532, is scheduled to be beamed down to Earth early next week. Full-time science observations will not begin until an eight-month calibration and checkout period is completed.

The telescope's sensitive instruments and other electronic gear require a steady source of power, and with only one solar panel fully deployed, the observatory's high-tech nickel-hydrogen batteries would have been drained after about 24 hours.

Equipped with a near-perfect 94.5-inch mirror, the electronic observatory will be able to study planets, stars and galaxies with 10 times the clarity of ground-based instruments, allowing astronomers to study objects created shortly after the big bang explosion thought to have created the universe.

Priority projects for the observatory include determining the age of the universe to within 10 percent, studying the size of the cosmos and the rate at which it is expanding and searching for black holes and other enigmatic objects on the frontiers of modern physics.

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Astronaut Steven Hawley, operating Discovery's fragile 50-foot robot arm, released the 12-ton space telescope into a record 381-mile-high orbit at 3:38 p.m. EDT, kicking off a 15-year quest to wrest the secrets of creation from the depths of space and time.

'The Hubble Space Telescope is released. The first of NASA's great observatories is now on station ... above the Earth,' said NASA commentator Jeff Carr from mission control in Houston.

Leaving nothing to chance, astronauts Kathryn Sullivan and Bruce McCandless were decked out in bulky white spacesuits and stationed inside Discovery's airlock, where they had been preparing for an emergency spacewalk to free a stuck solar panel on the telescope if so ordered by mission control.

But with time running out, engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., radioed a last-ditch set of commands to the telescope that succeeded in getting the second of two European-built solar panels unfurled and in operation after a tense period of troubleshooting.

A few minutes later, the 12-ton space telescope, the most expensive satellite ever built, was released into space, about an hour and 40 minutes later than planned.

'All right!' shouted NASA scientist Edward Weiler, jumping to his feet at the Goddard control center after the balky solar panel was successfully unfurled. 'That almost equals when they took off (Tuesday).'

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With both solar panels drawing life-giving power from the sun, the Hubble Space Telescope's computers immediately began orienting the instrument to keep it pointed well away from the sun as shuttle skipper Loren Shriver carefully backed Discovery away.

Shriver, co-pilot Charles Bolden, Sullivan, McCandless and Hawley planned to remain close by aboard Discovery in case additional problems required a rendezvous and a repair attempt.

The telescope's launch was was a triumphant moment for hundreds of scientists and engineers who in many cases have devoted their professional careers to a project running seven years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget.

But with the telescope finally in its element and operating properly, the project's tortured history took a back seat to the triumph of the moment, the dawning of a new era in humanity's age-old search for clues about the creation, evolution and fate of the universe.

The first image from the telescope, a focussing test photo of a nondescript star cluster known as NGC 3532, is scheduled to be beamed down to Earth early next week. Full time science observations will not begin until an eight-month calibration and checkout period is completed.

The telescope's sensitive instruments and other electronic gear require a steady source of power and without both solar panels fully deployed and generating 2,400 watts of electricity, the observatory's six high-tech nickel-hydrogen batteries could be drained, possibly damaging the instruments.

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The telescope was switched to battery power shortly after 7 a.m. EDT when Hawley first plucked it from Discovery's payload bay using the shuttle's robot arm. At that point, with the solar arrays closed and unable to recharge the powerpacks, the telescope had just eight hours of battery life.

While engineers developed alternative procedures to deploy the stuck solar panel, NASA played it safe, ordering the astronauts to proceed in the meantime with plans for a spacewalk.

'With the panels that you've got out there right now, it's not satisfactory to stay overnight so we're going to have to move out on the EVA,' radioed astronaut Story Musgrave from mission control in Houston.

'We copy you will be trying more commands ... but to proceed with EVA,' replied Shriver.

The solar arrays were rolled up like windowshades and folded back against the telescope's side during Discovery's ground-shaking launch Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center.

During checkout Wednesday, one array worked properly, exposing 10 panels of solar cells to sunlight, but the second failed to unwind on radio command from the Goddard.

A second attempt to get the high-tech European solar array to unwind also failed after pulling a few feet of the array out of its canister. The third try was successful.

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Equipped with a near-perfect 94.5-inch mirror, the electronic observatory will be able to study planets, stars and galaxies with 10 times the clarity of ground-based instruments, allowing astronomers to study objects created shortly after the big bang explosion thought to have created the universe.

Priority projects for the observatory include determining the age of the universe to within 10 percent, studying the size of the cosmos and the rate at which it is expanding and searching for black holes and other enigmatic objects on the frontiers of modern physics.

Capable of seeing stars and galaxies up to 14 billion light years away, the Hubble Space Telescope may be able to see signs of galactic evolution to help scientists figure out how the universe evolved from a featureless fireball into the relatively lumpy cosmos observed today.

Closer to home, the telescope may find conclusive proof of planets orbiting other stars, a discovery that would have profound philosophical, scientific and religious implications.

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