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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 09:38 GMT
Shuttle returns after successful mission
Shuttle, BBC
A triumphant return for the seven astronauts
The US orbiter Columbia has touched down at the Kennedy Space Center after an 11-day mission to upgrade the Hubble observatory.

The astronauts on Columbia gave the space telescope new solar wings, a better central power unit and the most advanced optical camera ever put in orbit.

They also installed an experimental refrigeration system that should allow astronomers to revive a disabled infrared camera.

The HST: Even more discoveries to come
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has already made astonishing discoveries about the nature and age of the Universe. The latest upgrade - the third big refurbishment in its 12-year history - should lead scientists to even more remarkable insights.

Back up

The shuttle landed right on time on the five-kilometre-long (three miles) runway, illuminated by powerful xenon floodlights.

"Field in sight on a beautiful night," radioed Commander Scott Altman, moments before the touchdown at 04:32 EST (09:32 GMT).

All the systems upgraded on the HST, which orbits more than 560 kilometres (350 miles) above the Earth were performing well, said the American space agency (Nasa).

Hubble history
1977 - Project begins
1985 - Hubble built
1990, 24 April - Hubble launched
1990, 18 May - First light
1993, December - Flawed mirror corrected
1997, February - Second servicing mission
1999, December - Emergency service to repair gyroscopes
2002, March - Repairs not done in 1999
2004 - Final service
2010 - End of Hubble mission
But it will be at least a month before astronomers know if the can bring the dormant infrared camera last used in 1999 back on line.

Cooling problem

There is great excitement about what the new Advanced Camera for Surveys could achieve. It should give a tenfold improvement in Hubble's "eyesight", allowing astronomers to look as far back as the first billion years of the universe.

Astronaut-astrophysicist John Grunsfeld said Hubble easily should make it to 2010, at which time Nasa intends to decommission the observatory and bring it back for museum display. One more servicing mission is planned, in 2004.

Engineers will want to closely scrutinize Columbia. A problem detected in the oldest space shuttle's cooling system shortly after launch nearly led to the mission being scrapped.

Nasa said it was probable that debris got stuck inside the system during the orbiter's recent overhaul.

Hubble SlideShow
See also:

06 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Hubble 'heart transplant' success
28 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
High hopes for new Hubble camera
14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Ten years of Hubble science
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