The Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early this morning on a mission to extend the abilities of the Hubble Space Telescope. If all goes according to plan when the shuttle and telescope make their rendezvous Thursday morning, the upgraded Hubble will be able to look more deeply into space than ever before and perhaps even spot planets circling other suns.
In a 6-day encounter, the shuttle astronauts will capture the orbiting telescope and conduct a series of space walks to outfit it with a pair of new instruments. One instrument, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, will give Hubble a view of wavelengths redder than our eyes can see, unveiling sights that may include other solar systems and the earliest objects to form in the universe. The other, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, can take spectra from hundreds of objects simultaneously, allowing astronomers to analyze the motions and chemical makeup of stars and galaxies as much as 500 times faster than before.
The current mission is the second one designed to improve Hubble's vision. The first, in 1993, added new optics to correct for distortions in the telescope's primary mirror, which prevented the telescope from focusing properly. The success of that mission raises the stakes for the current effort, which will tinker with an instrument that by all accounts is working very well.
Radio astronomers' hopes were also riding on a mission due to be launched last night: the Japanese MUSES-B satellite, which is designed to work in tandem with ground-based radio telescopes to create the equivalent of a radio antenna wider than the Earth. Last night's launch, however, was delayed by Japan's Institute for Space and Astronautical Science because of unfavorable weather. It has been rescheduled for later today.